John Mellencamp’s most trenchant work — Scarecrow, The Lonesome Jubilee, Big Daddy — is folksy and ruminative, but the cocky Hoosier made his name as a rocker. Dance Naked is his toughest rock yet: a spare, nine-song, guitar-bass-drums depth charge. A cover, with Me’Shell NdegéOcello, of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” was the chartbuster, but its ebullience counters Naked’s prevalent angsty explosiveness — the ferocious truth-telling that fuels “Brothers” (“Cain and Abel and me and you”) and “The Breakout” (“Am I in the darkness or is the darkness in me?”) hints at harder wisdom sought for in dark nights of the soul.
A sunnier rebel, Tom Petty may be America’s most engaging trad rocker. Yet his ever-cool slouch and wry grin mask not only a distinctly mature songwriting talent but also a survivor’s steel. As on his splendid solo debut (Full Moon Fever, 1989), select Heartbreakers help out on Wildflowers, and gems like “House in the Woods” and “You Wreck Me” are exemplary rock & roll. With the anthemlike “Wake Up Time,” Petty’s singing gains new tenderness, and the entire set radiates heart.
It takes the assurance of a titan like Eric Clapton to muster the humility that inspires From the Cradle. The guitarist’s tribute to the gods who formed him (Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Otis Rush among them), the disc sacrifices flash to sheer blazing force. “Groaning the Blues,” “Five Long Years” — this is the bone and sinew of blues.