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18 musicians that need the American Recordings treatment

Johnny Cash would’ve been a legend regardless, but 1994’s American Recordings brought the singer a late-career renaissance with a formula that many have since tried to emulate. With Rick Rubin on board as producer/guru, Cash turned in his most stripped-down, emotional set in decades, and the album—his 81st!—stands among his best. He’d end up making six volumes, all quite good, and earning respect among younger generations in the process. (An incredible Nine Inch Nails cover didn’t hurt.) In subsequent years, everybody from Donovan to Mavis Staples to Neil Diamond to Al Green has tried to map out a similar path by working with better or hipper producers, covering unexpected songs, and generally trying to reboot or reclaim their sounds—with varying degrees of success. Here are 18 that we think should seriously consider shaking up their current formulas.

1. Chuck Berry


In a rare interview, Bob Dylan was asked whether there was anyone he considered a bigger legend, musically, than himself. He named only Chuck Berry, saying, “In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable… All that brilliance is still there, and he’s still a force of nature.” Sixty years after “Maybellene” topped the R&B charts, it’s easy to think of Berry as a punchline from Back To The Future, or someone who recorded “Johnny B. Goode” and contributed little else. But Berry is one of three people who could credibly claim to have invented rock ’n’ roll, and his work as a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter provided the bedrock for modern music—so influential we barely realize it’s there. He performed weekly near his home outside St. Louis for decades until taking a break for the first time at age 88, but Berry hasn’t released a studio album since 1979. Like Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry is indisputably a legend, still a capable performer, and reaching the end of a long career. Given the right material, one last flurry of albums could be incredible. [Mike Vago]

2. James Taylor

In an interview with The A.V. Club back in 2010, producer Peter Asher admitted that he overdid it with the fancy orchestral arrangements on James Taylor’s 1968 Apple Records debut LP, because he thought to himself, “This guy is so good, I must make them listen.” After the album stiffed commercially, Asher stripped down Taylor’s sound for the follow-up, Sweet Baby James, which became a huge hit and featured Taylor’s best-loved song, “Fire And Rain.” Asher would carry that lesson with him as he went on to produce 1970s country-rock classics for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, and Tony Joe White, but over the decades Taylor’s style has gotten slicker and softer, which isn’t often the best way to frame a voice that’s already pillowy. He and Asher should get back together and shoot for something like 1972’s rough, offbeat One Man Dog, a collection of bluesy fragments and sketches that’s a fine example of how Taylor can be both playful and earthy. [Noel Murray]

3. Toots Hibbert

Though he’s 72, Toots Hibbert’s voice has barely diminished—it’s nearly as raw and soulful as it was during the reggae pioneer’s youth. But like many of reggae’s aging greats, Hibbert’s recent albums have begged for some sense of direction. They’ve been bogged down by too many producers, too many musicians, and too many conflicting sounds. They lack the simple confidence of Hibbert’s early run of records with Toots And The Maytals, which more or less just dropped Hibbert in a studio and let him do his thing. In theory it shouldn’t be too hard to recapture that old, session feel: Just assign him a take-charge producer who’ll keep the focus where it belongs, on Hibbert’s voice. There’s no shortage of young producers in Jamaica’s new roots scene that would be up for that task, but if Hibbert is looking to go the veteran route there’s always Sly and Robbie, reggae’s most accomplished production duo. They’ve worked with Hibbert just once, on 1988’s Toots In Memphis, and not coincidentally, it was one of his last great albums. [Evan Rytlewski]


4. Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers’ most recent output has been as pulled and strained as his now-overly worked face. His 2011 record, The Love Of God, came out on the undoubtedly very reputable Cracker Barrel Records, while his 2012 record, Amazing Grace, trod similarly god-inspired territory. 2013’s You Can’t Make Old Friends was nothing to write home about either, but it produced one gem that gave a glimpse at what Rogers’ career could still be. The title track found Rogers once again paired up with Dolly Parton, and while the two are still fond of heavy production and coy turns of phrase, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” was still heartfelt and personal, a song sung by friends about their parallel lives. It made both Rogers and Parton seem human again, reminding listeners that they’re not just icons—they’re also people. If Rogers could tap into that very human vein again for future material, it could remind even his most casual fans that he’s more than just “The Gambler.” [Marah Eakin]


5. ZZ Top


The best and worst thing to happen to ZZ Top was the success of the 1983 album Eliminator, with its futuristic synthesizers and goofy videos. That record secured the group’s rock ’n’ roll legacy, but also won over scores of new fans who assumed that’s how this veteran Texas boogie band was supposed to sound. In 1987, Warner Bros. even released a box set of ZZ Top’s classic 1970s albums, remixed to sound more like Eliminator. Over the past decade or so, the group has gotten back to the hard electric blues of its past, and even worked with American Recordings mastermind Rick Rubin on its last LP, 2012’s very good La Futura. But even that set came across a little labored. ZZ Top would be better served working next with someone younger, like Jack White, or maybe even the guys from Japandroids: people who understand guitars, grooves, and pinning listeners to the wall. [Noel Murray]

6. The Roches

In Greil Marcus’ book Invisible Republic, he talks about Bob Dylan and The Band drawing from a mysterious folk tradition that bubbled up from what Marcus called “the old, weird America,” a place before highways and chain restaurants, and where local idiosyncrasy ruled the day. Among the last surviving musical residents of that mostly forgotten country are Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche, a sister act that has been harmonizing on folk music and its own originals since the 1970s. While the trio never reached a mass audience, they’re considered legends within the folk scene. While the family (including Suzzy’s daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche) have been recording in ones and twos in recent years, the Roches haven’t performed as a trio outside of New York City since 1997, and have released only one proper album since then. While their song “We” famously insisted “we don’t give out our ages, or our phone numbers,” the sisters are at least in their 60s, and as with Cash, there’s a sense that an important part of our musical history could be preserved simply by booking the Roches some studio time and rolling tape. [Mike Vago]


7. Rakim

Hip-hop is often criticized for ignoring its past, valuing only the exciting and new. But if there’s anyone from the genre’s past who deserves honoring, it’s Rakim. He and innovative DJ Eric B were one of the most influential partnerships in music, releasing four classic albums in hip-hop’s late-’80s golden age before infighting led to a court battle and the partnership’s dissolution. Rakim’s solo career got off to a promising start with two well-regarded solo albums in the late ’90s, but the 21st century has not been kind. A Dr. Dre-produced album was shelved in 2003, and Rakim’s follow-up was delayed for three years, before he finally self-released it in 2009 and it sold just 12,000 copies. In recent years, the man some consider the greatest MC of all time has been reduced to performing and releasing one-off collaborations with the likes of Linkin Park and DMX. But line up some better collaborators, hype this year’s 25th anniversary of Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em, and Rakim could be back to household name status in no time. [Mike Vago]


8. Smokey Robinson

Like a lot of aging superstar musicians, Smokey Robinson has settled into the part of his career where he records duets and oldies covers, usually with production that sounds either awkwardly contemporary or old-fashioned and snoozy. Robinson has one of R&B’s greatest voices, which has gotten a little deeper and weirder in recent years, and he was the Motown songwriter with the sharpest pop sensibility. It’d be tempting to throw Robinson in a room with Mark Ronson, Damon Albarn, or Dan Auerbach (the latter two of whom have had success revivifying Bobby Womack and Dr. John, respectively). But Robinson doesn’t need to be modernized or funked up. Instead, someone should put him in touch with Eg White, whose work with Adele, Sam Smith, and Joss Stone is notable for its simplicity and its sense of atmosphere. Imagine what White could do for the man who wrote “Ooo Baby Baby” and “Being With You.” [Noel Murray]


9. Tony Bennett


A much-beloved crooner who has released duets album after duets album (including his latest, a collaboration with Lady Gaga) in recent years, Tony Bennett has never really gone away. That doesn’t mean his recent output is any good, though. And while the 88-year-old singer seems content enough to snooze his way through “Anything Goes” and “The Lady Is A Tramp” over and over again these days, it would be fascinating to see what Bennett could do when placed with either a real swinging producer like Mark Ronson or Dangermouse, or stripped down to absolutely nothing, à la American Recordings. It’s unclear whether Bennett really has the emotional, soul-baring chops that Cash did, but if he did—and if he sang something new—it could be fascinating. [Marah Eakin]

10. Glenn Danzig

If there’s one thing Glenn Danzig hates, it’s collaboration. In each of the three bands he’s anchored—The Misfits, Samhain, and Danzig—he’s ruled with an iron fist, even if it’s usually reserved for the editing process. This tendency has seen Danzig replace guitarist’s tracks with his own and endlessly retool and repackage songs. These control freak habits aside, Danzig is a hell of a songwriter, able to make punk, hardcore, death-rock, and blues-metal feel revelatory, thanks to his bottomless bellow and gut-punching riffs. (Don’t believe he’s a great songwriter? Check out the song he wrote for Cash on the first American Recordings set, “Thirteen.”) Left to his own devices, Danzig easily goes off the rails—as his industrial phase proves—but if he opened himself to outside input (like he did with Rick Rubin on Danzig), the results could be as fire-breathing as his golden era. With a legacy as long and varied as Danzig’s, getting him in a room with musicians of similar clout—say, Neurosis’ Scott Kelly and Sleep/High On Fire’s Matt Pike—could embolden in both sides of his musical interests. [David Anthony]


11. Barbra Streisand

A singer who’s made her career on schmaltz, Barbra Streisand is still releasing albums—just not good ones. Her latest, 2014’s Partners, features duets with everyone from Lionel Richie to the late Elvis Presley, and while that’s arguably what her increasingly gray-haired audience wants to hear, critics would no doubt love to see if she still has the ability to bare her soul, assuming she still has one. Like the similarly singularly named Oprah, Barbra has become more of a caricature of herself as she ages, best viewed through hazy, muted lenses and swathed in linen sheets. That’s probably comfortable, but it’s made the singer lose some of the fire she once had. If an aggressive, Jack White-esque producer could really push her instead of settling for whatever she’s willing to give, the results could give listeners a glimpse at the old Babs. [Marah Eakin]


12. Merle Haggard

In a sense, the Hag has already had an American Recordings moment with the excellent 2000 Anti- Records release If Only I Could Fly, an intimate LP that rescued his career after a ’90s swoon. And although he’s reportedly been readying an album with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson—a foolproof collaboration if there ever was one—it would also be nice to hear Haggard team up with a modern country whiz like Dave Cobb, just to see what happens. Cobb is well versed in the kind of storytelling-anchored outlaw vibe Haggard favors; after all, he produced two of 2014’s best LPs (Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and Jason Isbell’s Southeastern) and has worked with Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson. Best of all, he’s good at bringing out different sides of artists without dominating their sound. “When I work with a band, I like to make them sound like them,” Cobb told Rolling Stone. “And I don’t feel like my records have a lot of cohesion. Maybe the cohesion is making them as honest as possible.” And being guided (rather than produced) certainly jives with Haggard’s strong personality. [Annie Zaleski]


13. Morrissey

After much pre-release fanfare, Morrissey’s long-awaited 2014 LP, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, came and went with quite a whimper, continuing a career downturn marred by health problems and a string of cancelled tours. Perhaps the singer should consider a characteristically unorthodox take on the American Recordings approach and collaborate with his beloved Sparks. The duo specializes in being arch and clever (something Moz could use more of in recent times), while their combo of musical theatricality, meticulous songwriting and dry humor could give the icon a creative jolt. Most important, Sparks is one of the few artists with the clout to influence Morrissey—and help him reclaim his rightful crown as the Pope Of Mope. [Annie Zaleski]


14. Neil Young


Neil Young does what Neil Young wants, and always has—just look at his sprawling and (some might say) uneven catalog, especially in the last few years. That’s why it’s best if his American Recordings album happens with a producer who knows a little something about career curveballs and helping versatile artists find their creative mojo: Jeff Tweedy, whose work with Mavis Staples has been exemplary. The two are no musical strangers; after all, Wilco opened for Young and has covered his songs in the past. Tweedy could leverage this intimate knowledge of Young’s catalog and live show to help the guitar legend focus his songwriting and lyrics, and really drill down on what makes his best tunes tick. And as a fan, he could help mold an album that’s both challenging and listenable—an ideal (if sometimes elusive) balance for the relentlessly creative Young. [Annie Zaleski]

15. Paul Westerberg

Paul Westerberg has had his issues with producers, especially later in the Replacements’ run, on divisive records like Don’t Tell A Soul. In a video interview for VH1 Classic, he said, “It was an era that had too much goop slopped on it, with too much echo. Our records included. I’d love to go back and remix them and take all that junk out. Take out the five guitars and just have two guitars.” But actually it might be great to get Paul out of Minnesota to producer Daniel Lanois’ L.A. studio. Lanois, known for his work with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and U2, recently explored electronic noise soundscapes on his own Flesh And Machine. It would make for an interesting pairing, shaking Paul loose from his basement tapes aesthetic, and with Lanois helping retain the grit, heart, and poetry of Westerberg’s songwriting. [Drew Fortune]


16. Shane MacGowan

Many a last call has come and gone since Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan has been anything resembling prolific—the last full-length studio album to bear his name was 1997’s The Crock Of Gold, which he released with the Popes—but despite the fact that recent performances have found him looking like he’s on his last legs, his vocals still sound approximately the same as always. Having already proven himself at home when croaking out a good old fashioned murder ballad with his appearance on Nick Cave’s “Death Is Not The End,” it’s easy enough to imagine MacGowan rumbling and growling his way through an album’s worth of similarly stark material. [Will Harris]


17. Alice Cooper

There’s no question that Alice Cooper has had his fair share of career comebacks, but they never seem to find the famed shock-rocker delivering quite the right material to earn universal praise. For instance, his 1989 album Trash brought him back into the upper reaches of the charts, but it was critically maligned, and while 1994’s The Last Temptation Of Alice Cooper was respected by the critics and resulted in a comic book written by Neil Gaiman, consumers could barely be bothered. What Cooper could use is an album’s worth of tunes with the sinister sensibilities of his classic Welcome To My Nightmare-era material, performed with sparse instrumentation to play up the dark material. With that combination, he just might scare himself up another big hit. [Will Harris]


18. Sting

Remember when Sting was a new wave icon, a bratty cat with spiky hair riding the tube with his mates and singing about prostitutes? That was a long time ago, an era surely less lucrative than his current role as the world’s sexiest senior citizen/half-baked playwright. But wouldn’t it be nice if his recent reunion with The Police created an itch in Sting to take things back to basics—three guys in a room, laying down songs quick and dirty? It doesn’t even have to be Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, but it shouldn’t be L.A. session guys, either. He wouldn’t even need an outside producer: Outlandos D’Amour was self-produced. He’ll probably want to make sure his business manager is out of town, though. [Josh Modell]


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