There's plenty to enjoy in Cash's early work on Sun with producer Sam Phillips and his final albums on American Records with producer Rick Rubin, but there is something about this 1968 concert before inmates at California's Folsom Prison that showcases all the qualities that made Cash such a valuable and unique figure in country music and beyond - his rebellion, his humor, his tenderness and his desire to spread a message of hope and redemption.
In some ways, Cash, whose drug addiction was threatening both his life and his career, saw the Folsom concert as his last chance to prove himself. He had chosen the prison site because he had done a few shows at prisons and the audiences had been so wonderfully supportive. That's partly because they figured - because he had been arrested several times and sang about prison life - that he had served time himself.
With the date nearing, he wrestled with the question of could he regain his old discipline and drive. "If I couldn't pull myself together for an album I had been wanting for years, I didn't know if I could ever find my way again," he once said. The concert proved magical and Cash was on his way to become one of America's most powerful and inspiring artists - not just in country, but all of American pop.
Nirvana - In Utero
Because of the sweeping power and appeal of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Nevermind," released in 1991, will always be the album most identified with Nirvana, but there is a naked emotion and superb craftsmanship in the follow-up that makes it an even more memorable collection. "I wish I could eat your cancer, when you turn black," Kurt Cobain screams in one song and it was easy, in a time of punk-driven extremism to think Kurt was simply reaching for attention. But Kurt, the father of an infant daughter, wrote the song - a love song, no less - after watching a TV documentary about a child with terminal illness. The move documented what a daring and original artist Cobain was.
In "Nevermind" and "In Utero," Kurt and the band gave us music reminiscent of John Lennon's first two solo albums in the way they juggle vulnerability and defiance. The Difference is where Lennon made his ideas more accessible in "Imagine" after the stark "Plastic Ono Band" proved a commercial disappointment, Kurt and mates did just the opposite. After the more accessible "Nevermind" became a commercial blockbuster, the band - and producer Steve Albini - delivered a rawer and more demanding work. It's a brilliant album.
Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle
There are few moments in pop music that are more exciting than the arrival of a vital new voice and that's what you find in this collection. There wasn't the full command and confidence that Bruce would show two years later in "Born to Run," but there was a wildness and innocence in this forerunner that remains wondrous and engaging to this day. You'll find some of Bruce's promise in his folk-flavored 1972 debut album, "Greetings From Ashbury Park," but his music seemed buried beneath some worthy, but far too noticeable influences, including Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The challenge was to show more of his own identity and that's what he did in his follow-up.
Without sacrificing the surrealistic lyrics of the first album, Bruce's themes - normally reflecting the innocence, wonder, frustration and urgency of youth - were more disciplined and his musical backing bolder and more rock-ish than before. My favorite songs remain "Sandy," which brings together several of Bruce's favorite themes and set them against the natural illusion/fantasy of an amusement park setting, and "Wild Billy's Circus Story," which is one of the best songs about youthful dreams ever written, "Well, the runway lies ahead like a great false dome..."
John Prine - John Prine
After my glowing Los Angeles Times review of Elton John in the summer of 1970 was widely credited with helping launch his career in the U.S., I had the reputation in the music business of being someone who had magical powers to jump-start careers. Even though I was sensible enough to know that wasn't true, I wanted to protect any influence I did have so I looked long and hard before I gave another artists an Elton-like endorsement. The result is it took me 15 months before I felt so strongly about another new artist.
The breakthrough was the night I heard an advance copy of John Prine's debut album. For me, the album reflected the underdog sensibilities and poetic grace of such earlier folk-flavored singer-songwriters as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. I started listening to the LP around midnight in my home office and played it over and over until around 4 a.m. I was enthralled by the empathy, commentary, wit and even humility in his songs. John never became a commercial superstar, but his writing over the years continued to be so exquisite that he did become a superstar in the creative community - acclaimed by such artists as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Jason Isbell, and Emmylou Harris
Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection
One of the reasons I was confident enough to declare Elton John a superstar-in-the-making when I reviewed Elton's U.S club debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970 was that I hadn't only heard his first U.S. album, but also had an advance copy of his second album, which was released a few months later. That second album was "Tumbleweed Connection" and it came about as close to the ambition and craft of a Band album as anyone ever has - which is high praise indeed. Many of the songs, especially "Country Comfort," "My Father's Gun," and "Burn Down the Mission," reflected much of the same fascination with the American past, timeless themes and excellent musical design as the Band's early work.
Listening to it today, "Tumbleweed Connection" still stands as one of the most rewarding albums ever. Realizing that Elton and Bernie could give us both the tender, innocent "Your Song," from the first album, and the wonderful "Tumbleweed" slices of imagination and passion made me feel in that summer of 1970 that there was no stopping them. If you've never heard of "Tumbleweed Connection," you have a real treat in store. If you have heard it, I'm betting you will be amazed at how well it stands up after a half century.
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Hill's enticing vocal on the remake of the Roberta Flack hit, "Killing Me Softly with His Song," on the Fugee's Grammy-winning 1996 album, "The Score," Was a strong calling card, but even that dramatic arrival didn't prepare the pop world for the remarkable creative and commercial spurt that propelled Hill to the forefront of the hip-hop soul movement. Her 1998 ascent began behind the scenes as the New Jersey-based artist wrote and produced Aretha Franklin's best single in years: "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose."
But the real breakthrough was a few months later with her own album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," which contained a series of assured and insightful songs about social and personal issues. The highlights included a poignant tune about a single mother looking back on her decision to give birth to her child - a track that was all the more affecting because Hill was talking about her own decision. An absorbing album.
Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club
Blessed with movie-star good looks and a great voice with almost choir-boy purity, Sam Cooke wrote and/or recorded more Top 40 hits (29) than Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard combined, yet many pop fans were surprised in 1986 when he was one of the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That's because lots of those early hits were tame by early rock standards. For every soulful "You Send Me," there was "Everybody Wants to Cha Cha Cha" and "Cupid." Cooke turned out those pale pop ditties because he (and his record company) wanted to appeal to mainstream white pop fans, not just Black R&B ones. He even played the famous Copa night club in New York in 1964, complete with a cane and top hat, singing pop hits such as "Mona Lisa" and "Hey There."
The other side of Sam Cooke is showcased in this live album, which was recorded in 1963 (before the Copa album) at Miami's Harlem Square Club, but shelved because it was considered to raw and gritty for his mainstream image. When the album was finally released in 1985, it was an eye-opener. It showed his contributions to the passionate and soulful gospel-pop synthesis that was reflected in the works of Otis Redding, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and others influenced by Cooke. The collection not only explains why he deserved to be one of the first figures inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but also ranks as one of the most important soul singers ever.
Dusty Springfield - "Dusty in Memphis"
Though she may be best known these days for "What Have I Done to Deserve This," her sensational 1987 hit with the Pet Shop Boys, Dusty has a string of hits that go back to the early days of The Beatles, including the bouncy, country-folk "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." But her most celebrated collection is unquestionably "Dusty in Memphis."
After signing with Atlantic Records, Dusty went to Memphis to record an album under the production team, including the famed Jerry Wexler, that had earlier worked with Aretha Franklin. Instead of being an all-out soul exercise, however, the album simply gave a Memphis R&B flavor to a wide range of material, including tunes by Carole King and Randy Newman. The standout track was Dusty's exquisite interpretation of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins' country-soul marvel, "Son of a Preacher Man."
Bob Dylan - "Love and Theft"
This doesn't match the historical punch of Dylan's great 1960s albums or even the urgency of 1979's gospel-based "Slow Train Coming," but this gem - part of Dylan's amazing late-career run - may just be his most entertaining album. "Love and Theft" was the first time since "Highway 61 Revisited" that the music in a Dylan album was likely to catch your attention before the words. The arrangements - favored by the pre-rock country strains of country, blues, folk and even supper-club styles - are about as far from 2001 as you could get, and all the more delightful for it. Not that Dylan ignored the words; the lyrics serve as a wondrous, deceptively casual jigsaw puzzle of wit and wisdom that sometimes teases but more often jabs.
"Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," the opening tune, rumbles out of the speakers with the liberating energy and authority that have been the hallmarks of great rock 'n' roll since the beginning. From the runaway-train intensity of the rhythm section to the locomotive wail of the guitars, the track is such a striking sonic force that you will probably find yourself turning up the volume and playing it over before moving on. Among the other highlights: the jump-blues exuberance of "Summer Days" and the Bing Crosby-like croon of "Moonlight."
Various Artists - "Movin' On Up"
When this collection of '60s protest music was put out in 1994, it seemed especially timely. It was just two years after the Rodney King police brutality case in Los Angeles and it served as a reminder of how little things had changed since the music was recorded three decades earlier. Another quarter century later, the album again seems especially timely.
The music ranges from landmark '60s hits, including The Impressions' "Keep On Pushing" and James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black & I'm Proud)," to such other memorable moments as Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn," about four young girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, and Otis Redding's moving version of Sam Cooke's haunting "A Change is Gonna Come."
Sinead O'Connor - "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"
As a critic, you've go to guard against letting one good song or single make you overstate an artist's potential. But Sinead's version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" was such a haunting statement of obsession and need that I took to train from London to Manchester, where she was performing that night, because her musical vision seemed so immense. And, the trip was well worth it. She sang that song, along with some of her own marvelous compositions from this album, including "Feel So Different", "You Cause As Much Sorrow', and "The Last Day of the Acquaintance".
Recalling the intimacy and intensity of John Lennon's landmark first solo album, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" is an eloquent statement about personal exorcisms and spiritual transformation. I interviewed her after the concert and was struck by the seriousness of her art and her impact on her fans. "This album is about finding yourself and finding a certain fulfillment, but I want to make it clear that I do not feel I am someone with all the answers, someone who is trying to covert others... Maybe the one lesson of the albums is that you can find the answers if you look hard enough. Everything in the new album happened to me - and I learned from it.' O'Connor's much publicized personal problems have tended to overshadow her art, but make no mistake about it: she is one of the truly great artists of the rock 'n' roll era.
Tom Waits - "The Heart of Saturday Night"
Songwriters have long been a major joy for me, and I felt this Southern California native was someone worth watching the first time I heard the song, "Ol' 55," on his 1973 debut album. As it turned out, that marvelously infectious tune about an early morning freeway ride didn't prepare me for this sometimes stunning second album. Waits, who was born and raised in Southern California, uses this area as his setting in most of the album's eleven compositions, but it's not the usual Southland scenes - the beach, the Sunset Strip or the peaceful isolation of the desert countryside - that interests him. Waits' songs are about the underbelly of life - the late night neon-lit world of bus stations, truck stops, barrooms or just a routine ride down.
But it's not the locale, of course, that gives the music such richness and character; the real thrust of Tom's music is the search by people who feel out of step with the regal (i.e. daytime) world, trying to carve out some happiness and sanity for themselves in the lonely, night-time hours when even a bus station can offer some refuge from the cold (at least emotionally) deserted streets. And search in an important pat of Waits' music. "San Diego Serenade" is a love song about the way one so easily ignores the important things around him or her: "Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night / Never saw the sunshine till I turned out the light / Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long / And I never heard the melody till I needed the song."
Al Green - "Greatest Hits"
I fell in love with soul singers after hearing Ray Charles' string of hits in the 1950s, gradually adding Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye to my list of favorites. But no on had the consistency and character, both on record and (especially) on stage as Green, who was born in a small town in Arkansas in 1946 and burst onto the national pop and R&B scene in 1972 with four Top20 hits, including the spectacular "Tires of Being Alone" and silky, seductive "I'm Still in Love With You".
In the tradition of his idol Sam Cooke, Green knew the importance of understatement. His vocal style tends to be deliberately understated - a smooth, controlled manner that gives way to occasional, dramatic high falsetto bursts that exhibit extraordinary instincts of phrasing. He also has benefitted from his generous blend of several Southern musical styles - gospel to blues to country - into a richly appealing, even universal packages. I've listened to this album dozens of times, and never failed to marvel at his voice and style.
Various Artists - "The Harder They Come"
Though there have been a few lively hit singles in a reggae style earlier (Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion" and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now"), this soundtrack album (from the marvelous Jamaican crime film of the same name) was by far the best demonstration of the almost irresistible charm and appeal of the lively Jamaican musical style. The album features a variety of artists, chiefly Jimmy Cliff, in a virtual sampler of some of the most engaging reggae strains. Thanks greatly to the impact of the widely popular film itself, the music built enough of a taste for reggae that the genre's greatest star, Bob Marley (not on this album), would soon be wildly embraced in the United States.
Willie Nelson - "Phases and Stages"
Concept albums were rare in country music when Nelson wrote about the breakup of a marriage; the first half devoted to the woman's side of the story, and the second half to the man's side. The result is an often dark, beautifully crafted reflection f the contradictory, semi-desperate feelings that accompany such an emotional upheaval. Nelson's vocal style is deliberately underplayed; restrained, yet dramatic in the manner of an actor rather than a traditional country singer.
Broken love is a common theme in country music, but few artists have examined the subject in such a bold or comprehensive manner. As it turned out, the album wasn't a hit, but it did open a door for Nelson and concept albums. When he recorded the more accessible and traditional country-sounding collection, "Red-Headed Strange," a year later for another record label, it went to No.1 on the country charts and established the Texas-native as a country superstar. To my mind, "Phases and Stages" is the superior work.
"Paul Simon - Graceland"
Without question, this is Simon’s masterpiece. The music’s accessibility and charm of the music makes the album feel almost effortless, but the achievement was both complex and extraordinary. Simon, one of the premier songwriters in American pop history, blended American musical strains with South African roots traditions in ways that gave us something startlingly new, a mix that is likely to influence musicians around the world for generations to come.
Paul recorded “Graceland” in the mid-1980s, describing a worldwide struggle to balance feelings of seemingly unlimited scientific advances (the boy in the bubble) and unexpected social terrors (the bomb in the baby carriage), yet the album addresses today’s complexities just as powerfully. The music is joyful and warm, frequently inviting you to step onto the dance floor. Simon’s words, meanwhile, strive for an essential healing, addressing a world community with empathy and a shared, spiritually-tinged idealism. Ultimately, he tells us, we all will be received in Graceland.