Joe Strummer

    Walker (Virgin, 1987)
   Earthquake Weather (Epic, 1989)
    Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (Epitaph/Hellcat, 1999)
     Global a Go-Go (Epitaph/Hellcat, 2001)
     Streetcore (Epitaph/Hellcat, 2003)

"Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer / I think he might have been our only decent teacher," sang Craig Finn of the Hold Steady in 2008, six years after Strummer died suddenly of a stroke. You could see where Finn was coming from. With the Clash, Strummer was an ideal frontman. He was a punk with a huge heart and big ears, intelligent, impassioned, ebullient, and full of great ideas. Those qualities didn't always manifest themselves in his solo career, though it wasn't for lack of trying. In 1986, the same year the Clash officially called it quits, Strummer released the single "Love Kills," from the soundtrack to Sid and Nancy, managed to recall both the raucous charm of "Train in Vain" and the punchy guitars of "Clash City Rockers." But Strummer's next venture into film music, the score to Walker, is a disappointment, whether taken as a rock album (which it isn't) or as an exercise in approximating Central American folk idioms (which it tries in vain to do).

Apparently starstruck, Strummer returned to Hollywood yet again, to bestow the Permanent Record soundtrack with four forgettable performances by his band, the Latino Rockabilly War. Earthquake Weather, his first noncinematic solo album, arrived a year later; empty and enervated, it was a big disappointment.

Chastened, Strummer took the next decade off, returning refreshed and reinvigorated. Recorded with his spitfire backing band the Mescaleros, Rock, Art and the X-Ray Style, is an endearing trifle that neither furthers his reputation nor undercuts his legacy. The world-beat crazed Global a Go-Go followed, and despite sessions so loose it's easy to wonder if they even rehearsed, the album has a loose-limbed charm that with the likes of "Mondo Bongo" and "Bhindi Bhagee" overcomes the occasional sagginess of the playing.

Streetcore, recorded just before Strummer passed away, is a good record that could have been great. There's impressive power in "Get Down Moses" and "Arms Aloft," and the cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is one of Strummer's best vocal performances, period. But there's a ragged casualness to other performances that makes the album, like his solo career itself, seem sadly unfinished.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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