Inventory: 15 True Comeback Albums
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1. Frank Sinatra, Songs For Young Lovers (1955)
A bobbysoxer idol, Frank Sinatra became a '40s icon, riding high on the adoration of young fans. Then the fans moved on. Sinatra worked steadily and unhappily through his down period, watching as his film work dried up, his radio shows fizzled, and Columbia music director Mitch Miller failed to get what made him Sinatra. Then Sinatra found his second act, appearing in From Here To Eternity, switching to Capitol, and hooking up with simpatico arranger Nelson Riddle to realize his musical ambitions. Everything that made Sinatra's second-phase career so remarkable is evident on the mini-album Songs For Young Lovers, which follows through on the title's theme, discards Sinatra-the-exuberant-kid, and reinvents him as Sinatra-the-unrivaled-song-interpreter: often sad, occasionally kicked-around, easily amused, and just a little distant.
2. Judy Garland, Judy At Carnegie Hall (1961)
Judy Garland spent the '50s doing European concert tours and reinventing herself as a sophisticated recording artist in the Frank Sinatra mold, but by the end of the decade, bouts of exhaustion and a case of hepatitis threatened to end her career. Then, on April 23, 1961, Garland put on a show at Carnegie Hall, covering the American songbook and her own MGM movie hits, and her depths of energy and passion stunned even her most devout fans. The double-album document Judy At Carnegie Hall won five Grammys, stayed on the charts for two years, and inspired a thousand drag acts.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge (1962)
From a professional perspective, Sonny Rollins had no reason to pull the plug on his career in 1957. The prolific artist helped define the sound of '50s jazz—and what the words "post" and "hard" meant when they appeared in front of the word "bop." In 1956, he issued an album called Saxophone Colossus, and the name deservedly stuck. Nonetheless, Rollins walked away from it all, citing dissatisfaction with his craft. He didn't stop playing, however; he spent his nights developing his sound on the Williamsburg Bridge. His comeback: The Bridge, a loose, inventive album that sounds like the work of someone who had rediscovered the joy of simply playing.
4. Elvis Presley, From Elvis In Memphis (1969)
The king of rock 'n' roll mostly missed out on rock's most fruitful era, stuck as he was in campy movies while his disciples in the UK and San Francisco were turning pop into art. In 1968, an NBC television special reminded people what a force Presley could be when he stuck to his classic hits and stripped away the chintz. He followed up the special with arguably the best album of his career, From Elvis In Memphis, a set of gritty rock songs, contemporary R&B, and soft country-pop like "Gentle On My Mind" and "Any Day Now." The record also featured one of his biggest hits, "In The Ghetto," a swing at social relevance that, for the first time in a long time in his career, was tuned in to its time.
5. John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (1980)
After publicly burning out during a "lost weekend" away from Yoko Ono, Lennon reunited with his estranged wife, a reunion that led to Sean Lennon and a long stint as a self-described house-husband. That ended with the recording of Double Fantasy, a Lennon/Ono concept album in which the duo alternate singing about their lives together—and apart. The Ono tracks can politely be described as uncompromising, and the production wraps Lennon's contributions in an unflattering soft-rock veneer, but songs like "(Just Like) Starting Over," "Watching The Wheels," and "I'm Losing You" confirm that Lennon had rediscovered his voice. Sadly, his murder three weeks after Double Fantasy's release transformed the album into a bittersweet epilogue.
6. John Fogerty, Centerfield (1985)
John Fogerty spent years bickering with his former label over whether he had the right to perform his old Creedence Clearwater Revival songs—or even new songs that sounded like CCR—and by the mid-'80s, the swamp-rock stalwart got sick of worrying about how to disguise his style, and just let rip with a set of classic, Fogerty-styled Americana. Only about half of Centerfield is all that good, but it's telling that pretty much every one of those good songs—the title track, "Big Train (From Memphis)," "Rock And Roll Girls," and "The Old Man Down The Road"—still get played on oldies radio, right alongside the Creedence hits. And while Fogerty was sued over the similarities between "Old Man" and his own "Run Through The Jungle," he prevailed in court, and officially got his voice back.
7. Neil Young, Freedom (1989)
A contingent of weirdo Neil Young fans will argue that he did some of his best work in the '80s, when he flitted from style to style and generally tried his best not to sound like Neil Young. But sometimes the conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason, and the chorus of relieved hosannas that greeted Young's Freedom in the rock press at the turn of the decade still resonates today. The record's signature song is the Bush-baiting "Rockin' In The Free World"—presented in acoustic and electric versions, just like "Hey Hey My My" on Rust Never Sleeps—but its more enduring tracks are the fragile acoustic ballads "Hangin' On A Limb," "The Ways Of Love," and "Wrecking Ball," all of which sound exactly like Neil Young.
8. The B-52's, Cosmic Thing (1989)
After becoming favorites to downtown types and in-the-know record buyers with a self-titled 1979 debut and the 1980 follow-up Wild Planet, The B-52's entered a creative and commercial slump through most of the '80s. Even worse, guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS, a devastating loss for any band, and one that left singer Cindy Wilson without a brother and The B-52's without its signature surf-meets-sci-fi guitar sound. Rallying after some down time, the band resurfaced on the Earth Girls Are Easy Soundtrack in the summer of 1988, then owned the summer of '89 with the terrific comeback album Cosmic Thing and the hit single "Love Shack." As overplayed as "Love Shack" has become—does anyone still want to hear it?—the album holds up well, lending mature shades to the group's transcendence-through-trash-culture vibe. The only full-length follow-up to date—the Cindy Wilson-free 1992 album Good Stuff—failed to move the band forward creatively or commercially today, although it continues to enjoy success as a summer touring act.
9. Lou Reed, New York (1989)
It seems 1989 was a good year for comebacks: In addition to The B-52's, ever-cresting, ever-troughing Lou Reed crawled out of a mid-'80s slump to deliver a contemporaneous snapshot of his hometown. Reed discovers a city in which the gulf between rich and poor has never been deeper, he morns friends lost to AIDS, he considers fatherhood, and he contemplates the nature of Christ against a spare, fuck-the-glossy-'80s sound that emphasizes his strengths as a storyteller.
10. Johnny Cash, American Recordings (1994)
Of course, Reed wasn't the only performer who had trouble in the '80s. Virtually everyone more comfortable with a guitar than a drum machine had a rough time of it. And veteran country singers had it even worse than rock stars, after a new class of fresh-faced pop-striving stars virtually exiled them from country radio. Guided by Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash bucked the trend and simply sang. Discarding production frills, American Recordings lets Cash work through 13 tracks of originals, old favorites, and some truly odd covers (Danzig?) that sound like they were written for him. It set the pattern for his artistically triumphant final decade as a recording artist.
11. Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (2000)
Consummate studio rats, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker made a semi-shocking return to the road in the '90s before releasing Two Against Nature after a 20-year Steely Dan gap. They'd finally aged into the disaffected middle-agedom they'd long affected, and it sounded as if mere months had passed. The duo took Album Of The Year honors at the Grammys and released the even-better Everything Must Go in 2003.
12. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
It may seem that U2 only put fans through a one-album dip—1997's lumbering Pop—but some devotees of '80s U2 felt distanced from the band throughout the '90s, while Bono and company dabbled in electronics and irony. All That You Can't Leave Behind didn't generate much pre-release excitement until "Beautiful Day" started popping up on the radio, with its retro sincerity and soaring chorus. The album fulfilled the single's promise, restoring The Edge's trademark needle-threading guitar to the center of songs that spoke of pain and redemption, instead of postmodernism.
13. Electric Light Orchestra, Zoom (2001)
The recent revival of interest in Electric Light Orchestra came a few years too late to save Zoom, Jeff Lynne's barely heard attempt to revive the classic ELO sound. Beginning with the revved-up "Alright"—a "Don't Bring Me Down" for the '00s—Zoom brought back all the rockabilly twang and disco sparkle of the late '70s, and with songs like "State Of Mind" and "Stranger On A Quiet Street," Lynne produced a couple of gems worthy of inclusion on any ELO mix. The album made little impact commercially, but it was part of an early-'00s wave of albums by exiled-from-radio classic rockers (most notably Fleetwood Mac) who abandoned contemporary relevance and returned gleefully to the style that made them stars.
14. Mission Of Burma, OnOffOn (2004)
Plenty of modern rock legends have regrouped after a long layoff to play for the young fans who missed them the first time, but Mission Of Burma is one of the few that returned even stronger than it was in round one. OnOffOn featured scorching new recordings of songs that had popped up in demo form on Burma rarities collections, but the fresher songs were just as good, and surprisingly loud, given that the reason the band broke up in the first place was because of Roger Miller's chronic tinnitus. Mission Of Burma repeated the trick this year with The Obliterati, another excellent album of beautifully noisy art-rock, as bracing now as it would've been 20 years ago.
15. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (2004)
Following the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin model, Jack White shepherded a long-overdue comeback for Loretta Lynn in 2004. Country purists might argue with some of White's musical choices, but the heartfelt sentiments and unmistakable personality are pure Lynn. As with the best comebacks, it's an album that sounds like she'd wanted to make for years, and she didn't miss the opportunity to make it right.