Comeback albums are a beautiful thing. If you're a longtime fan of that one band that used to be awesome but has spent their last decade cranking out the most godawful music of their career, the moment when they finally get their shit together again on record can be absolutely life affirming.
For the artist, that comeback album that they just KNEW they had in them opens up the doors for a fruitful late career resurgence to cement their legacy as one of the all-time greats. At least, until they blow it with that experimental pan flute album a few years later. Here are a few of the greatest comeback albums of all time...
15. Bruce Springsteen - The Rising
Musically, the 90's were lean times for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Not a single Springsteen album with the E Street Band was to be found. The studio albums Bruce released on his own were among the least critically successful of his career. The turn of the century came and went with no activity from The Boss. And then, 9/11 happened. Not the ideal catalyst for a new E Street record, but it made for Springsteen's strongest collection of songs in well over a decade with The Rising. And he's been on a creative tear ever since, releasing three studio albums and two live albums, with a new studio album due in early 2009.
14. Prince - Musicology
Prince spent the better part of the 90's sacrificing being awesome in favor of being, for the most part, pretty damn awful. Without major label pressure to deal with, Prince was free to indulge in every horrible idea he ever had. For the record, the very worst idea he ever had? Rapping. There were some fine moments intermingled with all of the 90's awful. The Gold Experience album was pretty great. But those moments of greatness were few and far between. But there was something different about 2004's Musicology. It didn't seem like just a random great record from a notoriously inconsistent artist. It seemed like a rebirth. Prince was always one to respect the past when making a record, but for the first time on Musicology, it seemed like he finally respected his past as well. He was finally at ease with who he is...the funkiest MF on the planet.
13. Neil Young - Freedom
Neil Young does whatever the hell he wants. Sometimes the results are stunning, like on the gloriously lo-fi masterpiece Tonight's the Night. But when Neil goes off the rails, he does it in grand fashion. See his dazzling string of absolutely horrific 80's albums, for example. During those dark years, Neil spent any time when he wasn't busy recording rockabilly and country albums wallowing in 80's synthesizer hell. If you're familiar with his work but not this particular period, the thought of Neil Young and a synthesizer probably sounds pretty terrifying. But for a stretch there in the 80's, it was the norm. And also completely terrifying.
But, as if by some kind of act of God, the final year of the 80's saw Neil Young release one of the most electrifying albums of his career. Freedom, bookended by acoustic and electric versions of the classic "Rockin' In the Free World" and featuring live tracks with the audience noise removed, was a stylistic follow up to the classic Rust Never Sleeps. It took over ten years to happen, but it was more than worth the wait.
12. Tina Turner - Private Dancer
Had it not been for all those beatings, Tina Turner may have regretted her divorce from Ike Turner at first. The move certainly didn't do much for her career. The first two solo albums she released after her split with Ike were commercial failures. Her hornily titled 1979 release, Love Explosion, would be her last album for five years. By 1984, most had written off Tina Turner the pop star as a thing of the past. But with that year's Private Dancer, Tina Turner suddenly found herself at the top of the charts once again. It seemed like every song on that album was released as a single at some point. Since 1984, the album has sold over 11 million copies worldwide.
11. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication
Overall, it's hard to call Californication a proper comeback album. Prior to its release, the band had met with some critical backlash over their heavily Dave Navarro influenced One Hot Minute album. With that said, it still sold over five million copies. Modest sales compared to their previous effort, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but sales most bands would kill for nonetheless. But it's not like there was no turmoil within the band. John Frusciante had exited the band while touring behind the Blood Sugar Sex Magik album and had developed a severe heroin addiction in the years since. But a successful stint in rehab led to Frusciante rejoining the band, and his influence was dominant on Californication. The album introduced a much more mellow sound than the band had been previously known for. While the new direction has split some fans, the critical response to Californication (and the follow up By the Way) has been phenomenal.
10. John Fogerty - Centerfield
John Fogerty's career seemed to hit a stopping point when his Hoodoo album was rejected by his record label in 1976. After that disappointment, it would be another nine years before Fogerty would release another album. But to hear Centerfield, you would think Fogerty had never missed a beat. The album was an incredible return to form, so much so that some suggested he returned too much to form. As a means of getting out of his contract, Fogerty had long since signed away his rights to the Creedence Clearwater Revival name and publishing rights. But the second single from Centerfield, "The Old Man Down the Road," sounded like vintage CCR. It would take a total douchebag to actually sue someone for still sounding the way they did a few years ago. In the case of John Fogerty, that douchebag was Saul Zaents, who actually sued Fogerty for copyright infringement. For sounding like himself. Naturally, the case was thrown out.
9. Nas - Stillmatic
For a few years in the mid-90's, it seemed like Nas was destined to go down as one of the biggest disappointments in rap history. After his stone classic debut, Illmatic, expectations were high that Nas was going to be the greatest ever. And then, he unleashed a wave of increasingly disappointing albums, beginning with his sophomore effort It Was Written. But a beef with Jay-Z at the beginning of the decade seemingly reignited Nas' creative spirit. 2001's Stillmatic was every bit the return to form that the title suggested, even earning the much sought after "5 Mic" rating from The Source magazine. And eventually, Nas and Jay-Z kissed and made up. Awwwwwww.
8. Mariah Carey - The Emancipation of Mimi
Yep, Mariah Carey is on the list. And she deserves it. The Emancipation of Mimi is the type of album Britney Spears is going to have to make if she ever hopes to ascend to her previous pop heights. If you're capable of doing such a thing, reflect back on what your opinion of Mariah Carey was prior the release of this album. In the space of just a few years, she had blown a huge record contract, recorded the worst album of her career (which happened to be the soundtrack to Glitter, the worst movie ever, which she of course starred in) and had her sanity questioned after stripping on TRL and posting rambling messages on her website. Rumors of a suicide attempt even circulated for awhile.
It seemed she was headed down an ugly path when, seemingly out of nowhere, she released her greatest album ever, The Emancipation of Mimi. It's incredible what a great album can do for the public's perception. It was as if overnight all of the problems that had plagued Mariah's career in recent years were gone. Her followup album, E=MC2 was a commercial and critical success also. It would appear that, against incredible odds, Mariah Carey has successfully un-crazied herself. And the albums are good. No, seriously.
7. Santana - Supernatural
There is no arguing the genius of Clive Davis. He's signed some of the hugest acts of all time. And in the case of Carlos Santana, Clive orchestrated one of the most improbable rock music comebacks of all time. By the late 90's, Santana as chart entity was a thing of years long past. But Clive Davis had an idea. What would happen if the classic sound and guitar work of Santana was combined with the voices of today? For better or worse, what happened was an unstoppable force of an album called Supernatural. The album sold fifteen million copies, won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and pulled off the unthinkable by making Rob Thomas seem kind of cool (briefly).
6. Aerosmith - Permanent Vacation
Ugh, you kind of have to put this on the list, don't you? It's certainly not my favorite album, and it's doubtful that many hardcore Aerosmith enthusiasts would count it among their favorites, but damn if it didn't set things back on track for the band. You could argue that their comeback began with the seminal "Walk This Way" collaboration with Run-DMC. But at that point, the band was still a drug addled mess. It would be a couple of years before rehab would whip them into the pop superstar shape they reached at the time of 'Permanent Vacation'. You can argue about the quality of the tunes, but there is no arguing what the songs did for the band, which continues to be a commercial and touring force to this day.
5. Steve Earle - I Feel Alright
If Steve Earle all the way up at #5 seems like an indulgent pick, just understand this...I would have liked to put at #1. If you've never heard this album, go listen to it. Now. Don't Digg this article, don't finish reading it, just go listen to I Feel Alright. You'll be glad you did. As great as the music is, the story behind I Feel Alright is the stuff that comeback legends are made of.
After spending three albums being hailed as country music's "next big thing," Steve Earle lost his way. After a ragged live album, the still completely awesome (and awesomely titled) Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator, Steve Earle disappeared from music. His absent years were spent on the streets of Nashville smoking crack, a nasty habit that eventually landed him in prison. A stint in prison is usually the last nail in the coffin of any career, but Steve used the time to get his act together. Upon his release, he wrote and recorded not one, but two albums. The first, Train A Comin', was a low key acoustic affair released in early 1995. The second, I Feel Alright, was released a year later and marked the beginning of Steve Earle's second half career revival as not-afraid-to-try-anything country rock rebel. Since his release from prison, it's all been pretty much creative gold for Steve Earle. An unlikely turn of events for a former crack addict.
4. AC/DC - Back In Black
There are exceptions to every rule. When it comes to the rule that losing your lead singer means the end of a band, AC/DC is the exception. Normally, when a band replaces a lead singer, it just feels ugly. See INXS for a perfect example. It's just too hard to recreate that special magic that one voice has with one group of musicians. Apparently, finding someone with damn near the exact same voice goes a long way in making for a much smoother transition. It's doubtful that anyone expected much from AC/DC when Bon Scott passed. His voice was an iconic one for sure. But luckily for the remaining members, they stumbled upon Brian Johnson. His voice was the same, his attitude was different but still awesome. Everything worked.
This first album with Johnson features some of the bands most enduring hits ever, including the wedding dance staple title track. It's also not only their best selling album ever, it hovers somewhere between the second and third spot for best selling album of all time.
3. Elvis Presley - From Elvis In Memphis
With the mythology that surrounds Elvis these days, it's hard to fathom that there was a time when he was anything other than "The King." But the 1960's saw Elvis' career devolve into a long series of soundtracks every bit as cheesy as the movies he was starring in. Then, a 1968 television special launched a career resurgence for Elvis that carried over into the recording of his next album, From Elvis In Memphis. After venturing as far from his Sun Records roots as possible, for this album Elvis returned to record in his hometown of Memphis for this first time since those early days. The return to roots effort worked, and Elvis recorded what some argue is his greatest album ever. The sessions for From Elvis In Memphis also spawned what may very well be Elvis' last great single, "Suspicious Minds." But "Burning Love" was pretty damn awesome too.
2. Johnny Cash - American Recordings
Don't get me wrong, I understand that, in terms of the impressiveness of the comeback, nobody tops Johnny Cash. He didn't just off-handedly happen to record a great album after years of life in the has-been bin. He completely recast himself as a hero to legions of people with three chords and a dream. The comeback is the greatest ever, without doubt. But as far as greatest comeback albums, it just narrowly misses greatest ever. And that's not to say American Recordings is anything less than stellar. Rick Rubin's idea of having Johnny accompany himself on acoustic guitar was a gutsy decision. At that point, country music was nothing without strings and harps and whatever else could be thrown into the over-dramatic mix. But Rubin understood that there were only two things necessary to make magic with Johnny Cash: all you need is the man and his songs. And that's exactly what American Recordings was. Johnny, unadorned, as God intended.
1. Bob Dylan - Time Out Of Mind
When you think about it, Bob Dylan had been in a pretty bad way for a long, long time prior to the release of Time Out Of Mind. Even during his 60's and 70's years, he was a wildly erratic artist, equally capable of cranking out awesomeness like Blonde on Blonde or godawful nightmares like Self Portrait at any given moment. You never really knew what was coming. But with his move to gospel music in the late 1970's, Dylan began a long stretch of mostly terrible albums. And then he lost his voice. It was mighty conceivable that Bob Dylan as the world knew him was done. And, in some ways, he was. But 1997's Time Out of Mind marked the beginning of Bob Dylan pt. 2. His past was behind him, he would never sing "Masters of War" quite the same. Might as well embrace it. The voice is now a throaty, grisled, mess. But somehow, it works. And his songwriting has never been better.