NO ONE BLAMES YOU for hating John Mellencamp. The diminutive Midwest icon of stars-and-stripes farmland rock has long been known as "Little Bastard," a nickname that acknowledges both his penchant for bitchy rock star hysterics and his pint-size stature (he claims 5'7", but he's only that tall if standing on the career of Bruce Springsteen). Mellencamp hitched a ride up the charts on the Boss' denim coattails, usurped Bob Seger as the Chevy truck singing pitchman, and even took credit for inventing alt-country; truth be told, there's a lot to hate here.
But there's also plenty to love. Bastard or no, Mellencamp has a bountiful catalog that is overlooked and often dismissed in the discussion of great American songwriters. Now, as the Indiana rocker teams with his holiness Bob Dylan for an expansive tour, perhaps Mellencamp will get that second chance to prove there's more to his music than "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." or a hand clap-happy tale of two American kids growing up in the heartland. Here is an apologist's guide to the best of Mellencamp's work.
Nothin' Matters and What If It Did (1980)
His Cougness loathes this relatively bloated, big-budget recording, but if you need a primer on Mellencamp outside a greatest hits collection, pad his pockets with your hard-earned cash and start here. "Ain't Even Done With The Night" still holds up as the album's best single to have found a home on the Billboard charts (there's just something timeless about the line "You got your hands in my back pockets and Sam Cooke's singin' on the radio"). But the highpoint of Nothin' Matters comes in the rambunctious "Cheap Shot," which ranks up there with Phil Ochs' "Chords of Fame," Graham Parker's "Mercury Poisoning," and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Workin' for MCA" as one of the finest anti-record label songs ever set to tape. (Sorry, Sex Pistols, but "EMI" isn't that great of a song.) Ironically, rumor has it that Polygram/Riva supposedly sank nearly $300,000 into Nothin' Matters. Then again, since "the record company is changing my name now," Mellencamp has just cause for his anger. You just don't mess with a man's name.
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987)
The album that followed Scarecrow—his well-received collection of proletariat dirges—The Lonesome Jubilee acts as Mellencamp's bridge between his upbeat heartland rock numbers and his more hopeless, frayed-blue-collar tales of malaise in the Reagan era. While Scarecrow encouraged you to hopelessly dangle from a noose in your bankrupted grain silo, Jubilee finds Mellencamp experimenting with rustic instrumentation—fiddle, accordion, pedal steel, banjo—and it does wonders for his bucolic tales of farmland struggles (it was released two years after he helped launch Farm Aid). "Cherry Bomb" and "Paper in Fire" are a pair of great near-hits, but the ambitious "Check it Out" is the true standout track. If you need a Springsteenian comparison—and with Mellencamp, you always do—this was the period of time when Bruce was wearing a bolo tie and releasing Tunnel of Love. You win this round, Mellencamp.
No Better Than This (2010)
No Better Than This is to Mellencamp what the American Recordings era was to the Man in Black. Stripped bare and captured on tape in flinchingly raw single-take sessions with T-Bone Burnett, the album was recorded everywhere from Sun Studios to the same exact hotel room where Robert Johnson created "Stones in My Passway" 74 years ago. No Better Than This is the sound of an artist aging the way he was intended to. No reliving the glory days, no desperate grabs at the youth demographic, just bare- bones music forced to stand on its own. He might be a bastard, but he's our bastard.