Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Million Dollar Quartet [extended]

  • Elvis Presley [RCA, 1956]
  • Elvis' Golden Records [RCA, 1958]
  • Johnny Cash at San Quentin [Columbia, 1969] B-
  • From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis [RCA Victor, 1969] B+
  • Boppin' the Blues [Columbia, 1969] B-
  • Original Golden Hits--Volume 1 [Sun, 1969]
  • Original Golden Hits [Sun, 1969]
  • Together [Smash, 1969]
  • Carl Perkins and NRBQ [Columbia, 1970] B
  • That's the Way It Is [RCA Victor, 1970] C+
  • The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis [Smash, 1970] A-
  • Live at the International, Las Vegas [Smash, 1970] B
  • Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) [RCA Victor, 1971] B-
  • Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas [RCA Victor, 1971] B+
  • Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden [RCA Victor, 1972] C
  • He Touched Me [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • The "Killer" Rocks On [Mercury, 1972] B
  • A Legendary Performer [RCA Victor, 1973] B
  • The Session [Mercury, 1973] B+
  • Good Times [RCA Victor, 1974] B-
  • Promised Land [RCA Victor, 1975] B
  • Today [RCA Victor, 1975] B-
  • The Sun Sessions [RCA, 1975]
  • The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Volume II [Mercury, 1976] B-
  • Moody Blue [RCA Victor, 1977] B-
  • Ol' Blue Suede's Back [Jet, 1978] C+
  • His Hand in Mine [RCA Victor, 1978] C
  • Greatest Hits Volume 3 [Columbia, 1978] B-
  • Our Memories of Elvis Volume 2 [RCA Victor, 1979] B+
  • Jerry Lee Lewis [Elektra, 1979] B+
  • Rockabilly Blues [Columbia, 1980] B-
  • Killer Country [Elektra, 1980] B+
  • When Two Worlds Collide [Elektra, 1980] B-
  • This Is Elvis [RCA Victor, 1981] A-
  • The Survivors [Columbia, 1982] B-
  • The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Featuring 39 and Holding [Elektra, 1982] B
  • Elvis: The First Live Recordings [The Music Works EP, 1982] B+
  • Elvis: A Legendary Performer: Volume 4 [RCA Victor, 1983] B
  • 18 Original Greatest Hits [Rhino, 1983]
  • Milestones [Rhino, 1985] A
  • A Valentine Gift for You [RCA Victor, 1985] A
  • Reconsider Baby [RCA Victor, 1985] A-
  • Original Sun Greatest Hits [Rhino, 1986]
  • The Million Dollar Quartet [S, 1987] B+
  • Columbia Records 1958-1986 [Columbia, 1987] A-
  • Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town [Mercury, 1987] B+
  • Rockin' My Life Away [Tomato, 1990] A-
  • The Sun Years [Rhino, 1990] A
  • Rare Tracks [Rhino, 1990] A
  • The Million Dollar Quartet [Sun/RCA, 1990] Choice Cuts
  • The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 [Columbia, 1992] A
  • "Live" at the Star Club, Hamburg [Rhino, 1992] A
  • The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer No Filler! [Rhino, 1993] **
  • American Recordings [American, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Young Blood [Sire, 1995] C+
  • Unchained [American, 1996] *
  • The Very Best of Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes [Collectables, 1998] A
  • American III: Solitary Man [American, 2000] **
  • 30 #1 Hits [RCA, 2002] A+
  • American IV: The Man Comes Around [American, 2002] A-
  • The Mystery of Life [Mercury, 2003] Choice Cuts
  • The Legend [Columbia/Legacy, 2005] A
  • American V: A Hundred Highways [Lost Highway/American, 2006] **
  • Last Man Standing [Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback, 2006] ***
  • Elvis Presley Christmas Duets [RCA, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • American VI: Ain't No Grave [American, 2010] A
  • Mean Old Man [Verve Forecast, 2010] *
  • Out Among the Stars [Columbia/Legacy, 2014] B+
  • The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings [Ace, 2014] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley [RCA, 1956]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Elvis Presley: Elvis' Golden Records [RCA, 1958]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash at San Quentin [Columbia, 1969]
Much inferior to Folsom Prison and Greatest Hits, which is where to start if you're just getting into Cash. Contains only nine songs, one of which is performed twice. Another was written by Bob Dylan. B-

Elvis Presley: From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis [RCA Victor, 1969]
A double album, half of it recorded live in Vegas, which was a lot better in person. The studio disc is very strong, however, and the live part, containing the fantastic six-minute version of "Suspicious Minds," is good enough. B+

Carl Perkins and NRBQ: Boppin' the Blues [Columbia, 1969]
Sorry, folks, Carl just can't wear them shoes no more; he is an aging country singer and he sounds it. As for NRBQ, they were better first time around. Competent and utterly unexciting, except for the cover, which should win an award. B-

Jerry Lee Lewis: Original Golden Hits--Volume 1 [Sun, 1969]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]

Carl Perkins: Original Golden Hits [Sun, 1969]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]

Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis: Together [Smash, 1969]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Carl Perkins and NRBQ: Carl Perkins and NRBQ [Columbia, 1970]
This is uniformly pleasant, but Carl can't wear those shoes no more--he's an aging country singer who sounds it. And since he wrote about half of these tunes as well as singing half of them, we might mention that for the most part he's a competent and utterly unexciting composer. As for NRBQ, their jumpy version of that blues-bopping beat merges all too well with the novelty-music aspect of rockabilly--at times this sounds an itty bit cute. Cute and I like them: Terry Adams's hippie pastorale, "On the Farm," and a Perkins guitar showpiece called "Just Coastin'." B

Elvis Presley: That's the Way It Is [RCA Victor, 1970]
His seventh album (three admittedly reissues) and third live LP of 1970 leans toward uptempo countryish ballads rather than the usual pop-rock eclecticism and proves that he can remember the words without cue cards. I know that's the way it is--but is it the way it has to be? C+

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis [Smash, 1970]
His drive, his timing, his offhand vocal power, his unmistakable boogie-plus piano, and his absolute confidence in the face of the void make Jerry Lee the quintessential rock and roller. He's a country artist out of geography and simple pique at rock's scared-shitless powers-that-be--it was the inadequacy of country's moralism, after all, that drove him to rockabilly. So though sheer talent insures that his reading of such great songs as "Another Place Another Time" and "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye" will be definitive, he doesn't sound at home goody-goodying "To Make Love Sweeter for You." Nor are all of his throwaways as startlingly on top of it as "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)." And it's only when he can repent of his sins from the luxurious slime of the pit--on "What's Made Milwaukee Famous" and "She Still Comes Around"--that he comes completely into his own. A-

Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the International, Las Vegas [Smash, 1970]
Unlike The Greatest Live Show on Earth, a rock and roll set, this concentrates on "the country and western field of music." Jerry Lee runs through a few hits, calls upon Linda Gail for a couple of numbers, barely notices Tom T. Hall's "Ballad of Forty Dollars," and climaxes with "Flip, Flop and Fly," originated by Joe Turner in the rhythm and blues field of music. Very fast, very arrogant, and I suppose very dispensable. But Jerry Lee throws Jerry Lee away a lot easier than I do. B

Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) [RCA Victor, 1971]
A disastrous conceit, in which snippets of a "theme" song segue between tracks, makes it very hard to tell what happens to the Big Concept--Elvis Sings Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Anne Murray, etc. Most of his recordings sound suspiciously casual anyway, like preconcert runthroughs, and these segues add a rushed medley feel. "The Fool" and "It's Your Baby, You Rock It" work, and "Whole Lot-ta Shakin'" works out. But Tubb's "Tomorrow Never Comes" is a horn-fed monstrosity. And somehow I don't think Elvis had his heart in "Snowbird." B-

Elvis Presley: Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas [RCA Victor, 1971]
I prefer the open-throated version of his awesomely pious sentimentality--"It's Now or Never," "If I Can Dream," etc.--to his more constricted attack, used here to signify high seriousness. But when he's serious about classic catchy pop like "Silver Bells" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" it doesn't much matter, especially when you also get a transition from "I'll Be Home on Christmas Day" to "If I Get Home by Christmas Day." And here's what everyone was really waiting for--"Merry Christmas Baby," 5:45 of awesomely offhand dirt. B+

Elvis Presley: Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden [RCA Victor, 1972]
If you want post-comeback Elvis, stick with TV Special and Memphis/Las Vegas. Unless your home entertainment center is equipped with a magic holograph and seats 20,000, this will not recreate the excitement of that justifiably fabled concert. In fact, it won't even come close. That's what arena gigs are about. C

Elvis Presley: He Touched Me [RCA Victor, 1972]
As an evangelical tool, white gospel balances the sweet and the sententious the way "Reach Out to Jesus" does, but too often it topples like "An Evening Prayer," and guess in which direction. Still, Elvis doesn't toss this stuff off--he hasn't sung with such consistent care since his comeback was at stake. And just like black gospel (fancy that), "sacred" music isn't always solemn--half the time it's fast enough to pass for rock and roll. In fact, for a counterpart to the airy intensity and passionate grace of "I, John" you might have to go back to the Sun recordings. B+

Jerry Lee Lewis: The "Killer" Rocks On [Mercury, 1972]
Is Jerry Lee essaying a rock and roll revival because the country market is drying up for him or because he's never abandoned his dreams of world conquest? Only on "Don't Be Cruel" and "Chantilly Lace" does he sound triumphant, so it must be the former, which would be the only reason for him to cut this in Nashville anyway. Consequences of cutting in Nashville include a dippy chorus and the most egocentric version of "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" since the world began. B

Elvis Presley: A Legendary Performer [RCA Victor, 1973]
I'm told this compilation is his best in years, but what does that mean? That people play it instead of A Date With Elvis or TV Special, from which all the "later unreleased" tracks were originally excluded? And the interviews are all right, but you can't dance to them. For collectors, historians, and popular culture majors. B

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Session [Mercury, 1973]
The hardest-rocking Lewis album in years and the best London-meets-the-legend promotion since Howlin' Wolf's is amazingly consistent and authoritative--Lewis's patented hick cool always provides its satisfactions. But the impersonality of the no-gaffe two-disc supersession encourages his habit of expressing compassion and pain without any show of conviction. Of course, that's part of his charm. And you've gotta hear Rory Gallagher take Elmore James's part on "Whole Lotta Shakin'." B+

Elvis Presley: Good Times [RCA Victor, 1974]
It seems somehow fitting that EP's best collection of new material in years looks like a sorry Camden reissue. B-

Elvis Presley: Promised Land [RCA Victor, 1975]
Why is the new Elvis Presley album slightly better (even according to the singles charts) than, for instance, the last Elvis Presley album? Because Elvis decided to make like a big baritone? After all, he's often horrible when he chooses that move. But inspiration is funny, and on this one he'll make you care about, for instance, how a cliché like "Your Love's Been a Long Time Coming" is going to end. B

Elvis Presley: Today [RCA Victor, 1975]
Just in case you were starting to think there's no such thing as eternal life, I decided to acknowledge this, one of the King's thrice-yearly mixes of three (almost classic) killers and seven (not bad) fillers. As sloppy as ever, of course--you want he should be neat? B-

Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions [RCA, 1975]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Volume II [Mercury, 1976]
Decadence, decadence. Even at his so-called best he parodies himself, and his delight in his own insincerity seems narrow, joyless. Jerry Kennedy, formerly a model of restraint, throws on choruses, strings, horns, flutes. The nadir is the lachrymose "Middle Age Crazy," about a forty-year-old "trying to prove that he still can." Forty-year-old Jerry Lee takes that one at about half the tempo of his manic "Sweet Georgia Brown," which together with "Chantilly Lace" proves that he still can. B-

Elvis Presley: Moody Blue [RCA Victor, 1977]
Despite his capacity for undifferentiated emotion and his utter confidence with almost every kind of American music, Presley didn't automatically impart dignity to anything he laid his voice on the way such natural singers as George Jones and Al Green and Dolly Parton do. Originally a spoiled tough of omnipresent sexual magnetism, he deteriorated into a spoiled stud past his prime, so that while he was always sexy he wasn't always seductive. Whether he's turning it on ("Unchained Melody") or playing it cool ("Little Darling"), his miscalculations can be embarrassing. But he retains so much presence that he can make two Olivia Newton-John songs sound like country classics indifferently remembered. And when he hits it right, as on the first three tracks of side two, his sincerity, vulnerability, and self-possession are as potent as ever. It seems perfectly suitable that this shoddily conceived LP, pressed on blue plastic for gimmick appeal, should turn into his biggest of the decade on the strength of the ultimate gimmick. B-

Carl Perkins: Ol' Blue Suede's Back [Jet, 1978]
Perkins was never an Elvis or a Jerry Lee or even a Gene Vincent, and Ricky Nelson, for instance, put more good rock and roll on record. Young Blue Suede's Original Golden Hits is still in catalogue on Sun, and (for completeness freaks) his entire Sun output is available on three Charly imports. Excepting "That's Alright Mama," nothing on this Nashville we-can-too-rock-'n'-roll session conveys the verve and discovery of even his optional '50s stuff. C+

Elvis Presley: His Hand in Mine [RCA Victor, 1978]
With its mawkish self-righteousness, the title epitomizes why we backsliders have permanent doubts about fundamentalist culture. As do the music's secular sellouts, overblown sanctimony, and simulated heavenly hosts--and the thought of RCA making money on two dead messiahs at once. C

Johnny Cash: Greatest Hits Volume 3 [Columbia, 1978]
In 1968, his marriage to June Carter and his Folsom Prison album made Cash look like the greatest artist in country music, but who today would think of ranking him with George Jones, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard? A diminished singer, writer, and public presence, he hasn't even put together enough singles for a worthwhile best-of. Here are two duets with Waylon and one with June, two decent love songs by others and three flabby ones by himself, and you know what you'll remember next day? "Oney" and "One Piece at a Time," both about working the assembly line. Somehow I don't expect him to take the hint. B-

Elvis Presley: Our Memories of Elvis Volume 2 [RCA Victor, 1979]
The idea is to remove the goop--strings, horns, choruses--from nondescript '70s album tracks, shuffle 'em up good, and call it "pure Elvis." But though Volume 1 was a bare-faced exploitation, this one happens to work. Maybe someone figured the potential market hated goop of any kind. In any case, the song selection is neat, including "Green Green Grass of Home," "Thinking About You," the lovely "I Can Help," and a previously unreleased "studio jam session" on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" that is actually too long at 8:36. The mix is weird--I hear imperfectly erased goop ghosts on "Way Down," for instance--but as near as I can tell this is EP's best pop album of the decade. B+

Jerry Lee Lewis: Jerry Lee Lewis [Elektra, 1979]
In which Bones Howe and some crack studio pros spend four days getting a hot album out of the Killer, his first since the 1973 London sessions (and more consistent, too). Think of it as autumnal rock and roll--undiminished tempos under fadeaway phrasing. Best tune: Bob Dylan's "Rita Mae," the simple rock and roll ditty Dylan's always wanted to write. B+

Johnny Cash: Rockabilly Blues [Columbia, 1980]
Merely by copping to the magic concept "rockabilly," Cash can kick up comeback talk. And comparison with his rockabilly rockabilly for Sun (where he was always the countriest) establishes that by the standards of an ordinary mortal he's a better singer now--more flexible physically, more expressive emotionally. But the technique is a cover for what's lost, probably forever--stolid depth as immovable presence. Same goes for the arrangements--defiantly understated for Nashville, they're customized rock-country up against the austerities of the Tennessee Two. In other words, an honorable country album with some pretty good songs on it. B-

Jerry Lee Lewis: Killer Country [Elektra, 1980]
First time he was trying, second time he wasn't, third time he gets lucky, from a "Folsom Prison Blues" that far outgrooves groove numbers like last time's "Rockin' Jerry Lee" to the magnificently over-the-hill "Thirty-Nine and Holding" to various generic throwaways about his mama and his pianner and his tomcat ways. Even "Over the Rainbow" ain't bad. B+

Jerry Lee Lewis: When Two Worlds Collide [Elektra, 1980]
The title weeper's a cut above the rest, but new producer Eddie Kilroy doesn't push Jerry Lee the way Bones Howe did on Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact, all that rescues this record from boredom and arrogant excess are two ancient throwaways--"Alabama Jubilee" (1915) and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye" (1922)--plus an obscure BMI copyright called "I Only Want a Buddy Not a Sweetheart" that also evokes prerock tradition. His voice is on its way out and he's lucky if his spirit shows up on alternate Thursdays, but if he wants to tell us he's a classic I'll nod my head. And pat my foot. B-

Elvis Presley: This Is Elvis [RCA Victor, 1981]
Almost half of this two-record soundtrack comprises previously unreleased live tapes, usually of songs we have in studio versions--some forgettable (the two Chuck Berrys on side three), some historic (the Dorsey-show Joe Turner medley). In any case, the point is documentation, and for once I approve. Even trivia like "Viva Las Vegas" and "G.I. Blues" work in this context--in fact, it makes the context, just like the interviews (try Hy Gardner's) and intros (Ed Sullivan's). In short, buy The Sun Sessions (now midline-priced) and Gold(en) Records first, but this is the overview. A-

Johnny Cash/Jerry Lee Lewis/Carl Perkins: The Survivors [Columbia, 1982]
Survivors of what, pray tell. Oh--of whom. We get it. We know you all were trying, too--especially Big Jawn, whose concert it was. So we regret to inform you that you sound dissipated anyway, which has an odd effect on the gospel tunes and makes for the most magnificently thrown-away "Whole Lotta Shakin'" of Jerry Lee's intensely nonchalant career. B-

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Featuring 39 and Holding [Elektra, 1982]
Though like most country best-ofs this isolates some strong songs, it also courts the middle-aged crazy market by picking titles old farts will recognize, like his lame-ass "Who Will Buy the Wine" and "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." We don't get his loose-as-a-goose "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye." We also don't get his rockin' "Rita Mae," his rockin' "Don't Let Go," his rockin' "Folsom Prison Blues," and I could go on. Lewis made three albums for Elektra. Two of them beat the best-of. B

Elvis Presley: Elvis: The First Live Recordings [The Music Works EP, 1982]
In which the pre-RCA tyro finds a groove while making nice for squealing young country fans. What's amazing about the groove is that it's drumless, loose if not at all improvised, far more like blues and/or folk music than even his earliest studio work. What's amazing about the nice is how lascivious it is--when he invites his gal to "do what we done before" in "Baby Let's Play House," you can just about see her legs sticking over the back of the couch. Both features are more amazing on side one's relatively obscure covers than on side two's documented classics. B+

Elvis Presley: Elvis: A Legendary Performer: Volume 4 [RCA Victor, 1983]
Deemed a worthy addition to the canon by hagiographers who label the First Live Recordings EP a rip, this apocrypha--dominated by bent unreleased versions (and songs) that include a genuinely embarrassing duet with Ann-Margret and a priceless live "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in which the King collapses into giggles before he's done with the first chorus--marks the unchallenged ascension of Elvis Unmasked among the faithful. It's a fascinating document. I'd rather listen to the EP. B

Jerry Lee Lewis: 18 Original Greatest Hits [Rhino, 1983]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Jerry Lee Lewis: Milestones [Rhino, 1985]
Incredibly enough, this 24-cut double-LP is Lewis's finest US compilation, post-Sun side and all. And though Charly's 20-cut UK Essential Jerry Lee Lewis is clearly the better deal--Rhino's four extra songs, which bring the set to barely an hour and include the intrusive spoken-word novelty "Return of Jerry Lee," will cost you three bucks--I can see why this might be preferred by somebody who wanted to commune with the doomed man in all his multifarious glory. Jerry Lee is and always has been more than just a rock and roller. With a lesser artist, the boogie-woogie "Saints" and solo "Lucky Old Man" might not mesh, but Lewis makes them his own a lot more convincingly than he does the one-two-three Elvis covers on the Charly disc. A

Elvis Presley: A Valentine Gift for You [RCA Victor, 1985]
I know he invented rock and roll, in a manner of speaking, but I have news for you--that's not why he's worshiped as a god today. He's worshiped as a god today because in addition to inventing rock and roll he was the greatest ballad singer this side of Frank Sinatra--because the spiritual translucence and reined-in gut sexuality of his slow weeper and torchy pop blues still activate the hormones and slavish devotion of millions of female human beings worldwide. Beginning and ending with the schlock masterpieces "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and "Can't Help Falling in Love" and rescuing tracks from such renowned works of phonographic art as the Viva Las Vegas EP, the Spinout soundtrack, and the Something for Everybody album, this may not be a religious experience, but it comes close. My only real complaint is Peggy Lee's (not Little Willie John's) "Fever." Because in this company I really miss "It's Now or Never." A

Elvis Presley: Reconsider Baby [RCA Victor, 1985]
Peter Guralnick's contention that this blues singer is "unencumbered by myth or self-consciousness" doesn't survive the widely admired title (and lead) track. Especially by the late '60s, he's a white boy who knows he's getting fonky--and who doesn't surround himself with especially fonky musicians. So rhythms falter, and arrangements get out of hand. The great singer and hillbilly cat puts his weird stamp on almost every tune anyway. But despite the uncensored "One Night," and the salacious "Merry Christmas, Baby," only once does he outdo himself--on the unreleased Sun master "Tomorrow Night," which was already pretty ethereal in Lonnie Johnson's original. A-

Carl Perkins: Original Sun Greatest Hits [Rhino, 1986]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

The Million Dollar Quartet [S, 1987]
This isn't a phonograph album, it's a documentary--audio verité proof that the great rockabillies called black men "colored guys" and each other "boy." Also that they knew and loved all kinds of music, which always bear repeating. But I guess the immemorial working title of this legendary event misled me. Fine as the three voices overheard by the Sun tape recorder were, I keep waiting for Elvis, Carl, and Jerry Lee to coalesce into a group. And spontaneous as the family sing is, I keep waiting for the session. B+

Johnny Cash: Columbia Records 1958-1986 [Columbia, 1987]
Turns out he was always a folkie, a damn good one despite such lovable pop trifles as "A Boy Named Sue" and its decade-late follow-up "The Baron." The whole first side was recorded in his first seven months with the label; in fact, three of the five tracks were cut and wrapped on August 13, 1958. By contract, exactly one selection was busy being born between February '71 and March '79, the country trifle "One Piece at a Time," and while I'd substitute its assembly-line companion piece "Oney" for Nick Lowe's December '79 "Without Love" (which has more assembly line in it than anyone's letting on), that gets the trajectory of his career about right. Lately he's righted himself some, but it's the ageless stuff he's best at--John Henry and Ira Hayes, "Orange Blossom Special" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and let us not forget "Highway Patrolman," which proves Bruce Springsteen is Woody Guthrie if anything ever did. A-

Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town [Mercury, 1987]
I'd have let his contract lapse too--the pathetic Class of '55 proved he was a has-been, huzzahs and all. But he was holding a few in reserve, like definitive Elvis Costello and Guy Clark, overdue James Talley and (why did nobody ever think of this?) Ernie Ford, and the song-factory prizes any Nashvillean with a mind to can turn up: "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town," a hit, and "Heavy Metal (Don't Mean Rock and Roll to Me)," recommended to Mikhail Gorbachev for Goskino's next tractor movie. And then there are the two originals, which convince me he's still a has-been. B+

Jerry Lee Lewis: Rockin' My Life Away [Tomato, 1990]
Last time I saw this fugitive from Madame Tussaud's was a 1984 performance video that convinced me Mr. Scratch had collected his half of the bargain in advance. So I expected nothing from this live-at-the-Palomino rehash, James Burton or no James Burton. And was immediately confronted with a "You Win Again" so bitter, so reconciled, so defeated, so above-it-all, so miserable that for a few songs I suspected the monkey-gland shots had worked--except that he sounds old, old and lecherous, old and lecherous and determined to enjoy it. Things do wear down in the middle, and the voice can get weird, and caveat emptor: if these versions aren't identical to the 11 duplicated songs on Tomato's companion volumes, the country Heartbreak and the rockin' Rocket '88, Jerry Lee taught his best tricks to Milli Vanilli. Nashville-haters may prefer Rocket '88--"Chantilly Lace" and "Headstone" are keepers. But the true-pop "Harbor Lights" and "You Belong to Me" suit his ecumenical voracity, and James Burton is hot wherever. When and if he finally dies, Jerry Lee's gonna challenge Mr. Scratch to a piano-playing contest. Then he's gonna show Cousin Jimmy his ass. A-

Johnny Cash: The Sun Years [Rhino, 1990]
Here at the onset, hitched to a spare Sun aesthetic that's equally apparent in young Carl Perkins, young Elvis, even young Jerry Lee, Cash's natural fusion of folk and country is effortless. Whether covering Lonnie Donegan's novelty remake of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line" or stroking the market with "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" or checking in with classics like "I Walk the Line" and "Train of Love" and "Get Rhythm" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" and "Folsom Prison Blues," he's down with the common man--implacably, unostentatiously, without having to think about it. And terse, incredibly terse: check "Come In Stranger," which tops all the road-babe songs it anticipates at 1:38. A

Jerry Lee Lewis: Rare Tracks [Rhino, 1990]
Rare doesn't mean unheard, or minor, or even especially obscure. More like bloody. Or like "So Rare," the Jimmy Dorsey hit he doesn't cover, preferring Glenn Miller as he does. I heard 13 of these 16 selections when I labored through The Sun Sessions end to end, and to the best of my recollection noticed about four--"Big Legged Woman," "Whole Lotta Twistin' Goin' On," Glenn Miller, and the (nearly) eternal "Sixty Minute Man." In this company I notice every one. Filthy, corny, classic, omniverous, it's the perfect complement to 18 Original Greatest Hits. And almost as essential. A

Elvis Presley: The Million Dollar Quartet [Sun/RCA, 1990]
"Down by the Riverside" Choice Cuts

Johnny Cash: The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 [Columbia, 1992]
As a critic, a surrogate consumer, and a mortal whose four-score and hoping dwindles too quickly as it is, I hate boxes. But once I'd steeled myself for this 75-song monster, I almost downed it in one sitting. Like Bo Diddley, another minimalist who improves with time, Cash gains monumentality as one spare track builds off another toward infinity. Nashville icon though he may be, Cash's Dylan connection no longer seems anomalous--he's certain to be numbered among the century's great folksingers. The tuneless delivery and stark-to-received arrangements always serve the purposes of an artist who puts words first. He's as class-conscious as Woody Guthrie if not Irwin Silber, and if he doesn't prove that Jack Clement and Shel Silverstein are people's composers, which he may, he certainly establishes that John R. Cash is. A

Jerry Lee Lewis: "Live" at the Star Club, Hamburg [Rhino, 1992]
Assembled from two shows recorded in one night in 1964, released in Europe shortly thereafter but in the U.S. not till a 1986 Mercury LP that's barely a rumor, this legendary 37-minute performance is our last and clearest glimpse of Jerry Lee as a young world-beater. Not only has he bulled his way past the incest 'n' bigamy tour of 1958 and the drowning death of his son in 1962, he's some kind of hero in a Europe rediscovering '50s rock and roll via Beatlemania. Without cracking the charts or drawing crowds commensurate with his ego on the endless tour that is his life, he believes so profoundly in his pact with the devil that he remains unbowed. Here that faith is both made manifest and recorded for posterity, which otherwise never happened on the same night. Admirers attribute this ungodly miracle to one emotional resource or other, but I find Lewis so impenetrable psychologically that I hesitate to put a name on it. Instead I'll list a few technical attributes. Both performance and recording are very clean. Tempos are speedy, and the backing band--the Nashville Teens of "Tobacco Road" renown--keep up manfully. "Mean Woman Blues" and "Money" are definitive. And the piano kills. A

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer No Filler! [Rhino, 1993]
not the post-Sun comp he has in him--and the compiled-to-death Sun tracks are only half the problem ("Money (That's What I Want)," "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee O'Dee") **

Johnny Cash: American Recordings [American, 1994]
"Delia's Gone" Choice Cuts

Jerry Lee Lewis: Young Blood [Sire, 1995]
If the blood were literally young, the Killer would now be the Vampire. Instead, producer-wunderaltekacker Andy Paley is the Ghoul. Jerry Lee can still rock the 88s, but his natural voice is a croak or a wheeze, as he proves by heroically holding "Gotta Travel On"'s final "long" until it tails into the pitchless pit he's already filled with croaks and wheezes. He couldn't get away with "Thirty-Nine and Holding" at 45. Yet at 60 he still wishes he was 18 again. C+

Johnny Cash: Unchained [American, 1996]
"If I can't make these songs my own, they don't belong," say the notes, which always belong ("Mean Eyed Cat," "I Never Picked Cotton") *

Carl Perkins: The Very Best of Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes [Collectables, 1998]
Subtly bopping the essence of blues growl and juke-joint thrust, he was more adult, more regional, and more threatening than the Everlys or Buddy Holly. That's one reason he so quickly became a specialty taste artistically and a Nashville born-againer commercially, beloved by guitar adepts and romanticizers of Dixie-fried fundamentalism but legendary for one definitive song only. The guitar people have a point--while no James Burton, he had more jam than Scotty Moore and would have gotten where he got without Moore or his big boss man. But if that's all there was to him, he'd deserve to be a specialty taste. It's the songwriting that has reach. "Blue Suede Shoes" aside, these ditties seem to be trifles. Say you will when you won't. Put your cat clothes on. Or your pink pedal pushers. So now you try to do it--in 2:46, 2:48, and 2:25 respectively. Fine is the line between a spontaneous throwaway and a miraculous miniature. A

Johnny Cash: American III: Solitary Man [American, 2000]
The song alone ("Nobody," "Before My Time," "Would You Lay With Me [In a Field of Stone]"). **

Elvis Presley: 30 #1 Hits [RCA, 2002]
By my unofficial All Music Guide tally, this makes 385 Elvis comps, some as collectible as his soundtracks themselves, not one definitive. Although pursuing his pure essence is a fool's mission, only fools gainsay The Sun Sessions. A Valentine Gift for You is something to cherish. And there's use value in the five-CD The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters, which duplicates 13 of these selections. But this chart-seeking slice-and-dice feeds off his schlock power. It validates his audience. And it suggests that his life was a continuous whole, not the tragically bifurcated mess of current convention. What holds it together? Think lightness, even on the supposedly feral "One Night." A+

Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around [American, 2002]
The selection here is at once so obvious and so inappropriate it feels redemptive--as if that old softy Rick Rubin gently advised his fast-failing charge that if there was ever a song he wanted to sing he'd better not put it off till next time, 'cause there probably wasn't gonna be one. In fact this is Cash's second "Danny Boy," just his first croaky one (at the Kettle of Fish in heaven, Dave Van Ronk is mad he didn't do one first). He's recorded the evil-minded campfire chestnut "Sam Hall" before too. But Cash kills "In My Life" as hard as he kills Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, and though upon reflection Ewan MacColl wrote "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," you'd have thought Roberta Flack defolkified it forever until Cash got his heart on it. Only the pomposities of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Desperado" resist his advances. And first and best comes the newly written title tune, a look at death as cold as "Under Ben Bulben." All that could top it would be American V: Send in the Clowns. A-

Johnny Cash: The Mystery of Life [Mercury, 2003]
"The Mystery of Life" Choice Cuts

Johnny Cash: The Legend [Columbia/Legacy, 2005]
Cash recorded almost as much as Elvis and has been reissued more than God, but this quadruple will satisfy most of us, in part because we can think of things we miss--"Next in Line"! "Come In Stranger"! "Singin' in Viet Nam Talking Blues"! "The Mystery of Life"! We all have our own Johnny Cash, that's one of his strengths, which means we learn a little something from other people's, as in the previously unreleased Billy Joe Shaver duet "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ." The box omits the stark Rick Rubin stuff of his old age, which made him a "legend" if anything did. But when I test-drove the confusingly titled single-disc The Legend of Johnny Cash, topped off with a few renowned Rubin songs, the sudden dropoff reinforced my reservations about his late-life need to let his charisma stand in for his voice. A

Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways [Lost Highway/American, 2006]
Dead man singing ("Like the 309," "God's Gonna Cut You Down"). **

Jerry Lee Lewis: Last Man Standing [Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback, 2006]
Decades later, generation-gap duets are just a bunch of old guys singing--pretty good, too ("That Kind of Fool," "Rock and Roll"). ***

Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley Christmas Duets [RCA, 2008]
"Blue Christmas," "Merry Christmas Baby" Choice Cuts

Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain't No Grave [American, 2010]
One of those nearness-of-death albums, a category that for me includes not only Warren Zevon's The Wind and John Hurt's Last Sessions, but also Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Neil Young's Prairie Wind. Definitely both the grimmest and the most hopeful, which taken together means maybe the best. The big difference is that it's more direct than any of them, keyed to Cash's rewrite of I Corinthians 15:55: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory." Fortified by his Christian faith, he lends a cracked gravity to souvenirs of cornball sentiment ranging in tone from Ed McCurdy's political "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" to Queen Lili'uokalani's escapist "Aloha Oe," which close an album that also includes the traditional title song, a Sheryl Crow number about redemption, "Cool Water," and the tenderest "For the Good Times" I've ever heard. Never mind sex under the stars--John will settle for a sickbed cuddle. As Queen Lili'uokalani put it, it'll be a solace "until we meet again." A

Jerry Lee Lewis: Mean Old Man [Verve Forecast, 2010]
The Killer's many wives etc. (those who are alive, anyway) will tell you he's not really mean--that's just Kristofferson kidding around ("Mean Old Man," "Sweet Virginia") *

Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars [Columbia/Legacy, 2014]
The main reason you marvel that material this good was left in the can for 30 years is how many country albums settle for less. But the main reason the material itself astonishes is that Cash is so on his game in what was historically a fallow, coming-down-again biographical moment. In one novelty he gets it on with a chivalrously unnamed Minnie Pearl; in another, he puts a hundred bucks down on a Cadillac and drives it off a cliff on his last date with his ex-wife. Two love songs achieve high seriousness without whispering mawk. And Cash gets so much more out of Adam Mitchell's death-by-cop title song than Merle Haggard or Hazel Dickens. His natural gravity helps. But n.b., Rick Rubin: so does his possession of his bottomless pit of a voice. B+

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings [Ace, 2014]
He's always preferred to call himself a stylist, not a rocker, and these impromptu late-'70s recordings with Sam's son cohere into a lost concept album that proves him right. After transforming Leroy Brown into a Memphis motherhumper who stomps all over Jim Croce's stupid cartoon and wears the tatters around his neck like a victory garland, he rewrites a Moon Mullican blues, matches a 50s Chuck Berry medley with a 50s Teresa Brewer-Hugo Winterhalter medley, covers a humble Fanny Crosby hymn and a schlocky Mickey Gilley hit, posits a humble country hit of his own, and--after anointing America's first fulltime professional songwriter "one of the greats of all time" along with Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Al Jolson theirself--goes out on the greatest weeper Stephen Foster ever wept. His piano pumping irrepressibly, Jerry Lee defines his musical identity in the middle of the night with nobody listening: a stylist who can't stop rocking. A