Courtesy John Mellencamp
“I Need a Lover”
The curtains-up moment on the raw, slightly jerky Johnny Cougar. The second clause of the chorus (“that won’t drive me crazy”) sets up the kind of acerbic, bullshit-free guy he’d be for the next 45 years.
“Jack and Diane”
The sweet, searing frustration of adolescence here is so evocative and timeless that you kind of forgot how crushing the chorus and that bridge are. Also, it’s still No. 1 on the list of best American rock songs about chili dogs.
“Hurts So Good”
Mellencamp and baby MTV were awkward bedfellows, but if you’re trying to make it as a heartland rock star in the early ‘80s, you could do a hell of a lot worse than a track with razor-wire guitars, a bar-band chorus of mathematical perfection, and the greatest opening 10 seconds of his catalog—and the killer video didn’t hurt either.
“Some people ain’t no damn good,” he sings, before taking the chains off a chorus that makes you feel like that’s maybe not so bad.
Not much more needs be said about this anthem of the Midwest, four minutes of beautiful melancholy, unfulfilled promise, and the value of endurance even when it seems/is pointless. If you’ve worn of hearing the song of karaoke nights (or want to lean in on its darker side) check out the dusky acoustic versions that appear on the 2006 reissue of Uh-Huh or the just-released Good Samaritan tour live album.
The thing we said about “Hurts So Good” having the best intro in his catalog? OK, maybe it’s a tie.
“Rain on the Scarecrow”
Aside from being a monster smash with a million hits and perfect cover art, the Scarecrow album really began to show Mellencamp’s might as a songwriter. One growled chorus, two images, pretty much all you need to know.
An ageless, send-it-into-space anthem that Mellencamp tweaked with a wink whenever he was with younger women. All acoustic versions here are worth checking out, too.
“Minutes to Memories”
The Scarecrow version is a sneaky rambler whose characters get a satisfying Indiana relocation up to the Region. But check out the revelatory version on “Rough Harvest,” his contract-clearing 1999 collection of outtakes, alternates and live versions, which replaces the ’80s production with Miriam Sturm’s violin, a half-speed tempo, and a vocal in which JM appears to be dragging his voice behind a truck.
“Check It Out”
Mellencamp came down from Scarecrow with the sterling The Lonesome Jubilee, one of his finest moments and one that began to look real hard at the toll and glory of everyday life. “Maybe we’ll have a better understanding,” he sang in 1987. We seem to still be waiting.
Already a nostalgic old dude in his mid-30s—changes had already come around—anthems like this found helped Mellencamp and his band firing on all cylinders and conquering arenas all across the land.
So naturally, for his next album, he swaggered up and took a blowtorch to the whole enterprise. Pop idol-hood? Please.
“Love and Happiness”
1992’s Whenever We Wanted buried the name “Cougar” and introduced the world to John’s nascent career as a painter. But it also kicked off with a characteristically roaring banger about how lousy things were, not just in small towns, but pretty much all over the globe.
“When Jesus Left Birmingham”
Human Wheels is a gorgeous and slightly strange record, a gently rolling set largely free of his righteous indignation and steeped more in measured reserve. This opening track is a lovely gospel-inflected gem that pops back in time to self-crib its outro line from “Jack and Diane.”
“What If I Came Knocking”
Grown-up love in collapse. If Mellencamp is singing about a storybook romance, chances are it’s probably not one.
“Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)”
There are roughly three million ways a Mellencamp album released in 1997 and grounded in hip-hop loops and samples could have gone south. And yet, just about the only thing that didn’t was this sterling single that somehow hasn’t aged a day.
“The Full Catastrophe”
Maybe the song that makes the most of Happy Go Lucky’s synthetic foundation, this coal-dark story would have been right in place on a Warren Zevon record. The Rough Harvest version stripped back the beats but not the fire; the live version on Mellencamp’s 2015 tour transformed it again into a dark carnival number that channeled Tom Waits. Mellencamp seems to like this one; we do too.
Bruce Springsteen sings of redemption, Paul McCartney gives himself over to pop harmonies, and even Bob Dylan works a little humor in now and again. Mellencamp is more of the “life is hard and we’re all gonna die, probably soon” variety, never more artfully than this stark, shattering late-career highlight.
“Save Some Time to Dream”
Mellencamp recorded No Better Than This on old-timey equipment in old-timey environs, and while the effect will likely feel alien to the “ROCK in the USA” fans, the record is full of old-timey gems, none better than this title track that might be the most optimistic thing on this list.
And this one isn’t! A great messy blues stomp that kicked off 2014’s Plain Spoken and its tour, Mellencamp lays into the various people you can’t trust over a sound drawn from the early days of his blues/folk/rock history—one to which he’s tirelessly contributed for more than 45 years.