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Five for Friday: Must-Hear Late-Career Albums

Pop music has long been called a young person's game. Part of it relates to the medium's immediacy. With the music often instantly reflecting a time and a place, fans gravitate toward younger artists to take the pulse of modern culture. But it's also possible to age gracefully in pop. Recently, we've been blessed with a number of late-career works that stand among the respective artists' finer albums. David Bowie's Blackstar and Leonard Cohen's You Want It Darker spring to mind even as their brilliance remains tinged with the melancholy associated with each singer's passing. And while there is never a wrong time to look to our elders for wisdom, now seems as good as any. Here are five relatively recent must-hear albums made by artists 60 and older.

Jimmy Cliff, Rebirth
At its time of release in 2012, the Grammy-winning Rebirth marked Jimmy Cliff's first album since 2004. The reggae legend – and star of the film The Harder They Come – had found a copacetic partner in Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong. The latter not only treated Cliff with reverence but sought to emphasize his soul and gospel influences. Rebirth proves a topical and vital collaboration, as songs such as "Outsider" and "World Upside Down" touch on of-the-moment issues such as corporate malfeasance and oppression. The key to Rebirth's success, however, relates to its looseness. While bathed in welcoming warmth – the keyboards seem to glow – everything feels improvisational. Cliff may have been long removed from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, but Rebirth shows he had lessons share, and on tracks such as "Cry No More" and "Children's Bread," Armstrong provides room for Cliff to go in whatever direction he pleases.

Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome
With Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts all firmly in their seventh decade, the Rolling Stones continue to contradict popular notions about aging. They're still touring, still performing, and still talking of new music to come. It's difficult to imagine rock n' roll without such mainstays. And yet, one must go back to 2005 to find an all-original Stones record. And there's no denying the band's live shows center on nostalgia. But the legends sound re-energized on 2016's Blue & Lonesome, a relatively lean 12-song collection of staples from the likes of Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf. While the Stones always possessed the necessary attitude and grit to pull off the blues, here, the band's maturity works to its advantage. Be it the feisty and bitter guitars of "Commit a Crime" or heated longing of "All of Your Love," the songs feel like tales of coarse living and hardened emotions.

Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black
Mavis Staples' 2017 effort remains one of the angrier and more politically animated works of her solo career. Here, her collaborator and songwriting partner Jeff Tweedy seeks to connect the singer's current works and views with those of the groundbreaking Civil Rights-era songs of her original group, the Staple Singers. Primarily, she sees an America that remains divided. "Look around at our country," Staples sings on "Build a Bridge," "at the people we don't ever see." With slight blues flourishes bringing more bite to Staples' long-held gospel revelry, the songs address empathy and the need to connect. Yet the Chicago-based legend delivers them as if they're calls to action. Staples' won't-accept-no-for-an-answer rasp further lends hair-raising power to anything she touches.

Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe
A soul great who throughout the course of his career worked with the likes of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and Janis Joplin, Bobby Womack was in his late 60s when he got approached by Blur and Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn. A Gorillaz project actually introduced the two performers and spurred Albarn's desire to produce a Womack album. For 2012's The Bravest Man in the Universe, Albarn, along with XL Recordings honcho Richard Russell, paired Womack's scorched-with-life vocals with sparse electronics to devise a modern soul set slightly peppered with modern flourishes. Ultimately, Albarn and Russell let Womack's voice serve as the star on what happened to be the singer's first album in nearly 20 years. The resultant taught, digital arrangements create a claustrophobic atmosphere – one that on tracks such as "Please Forgive My Heart" and "Whatever Happened to the Times" bring to fore Womack's vocal grit while forcing him to confront the regrets in the lyrics.

Johnny Cash, American II: Unchained
OK, American II: Unchained came out more than two decades ago. But the entire American series – the late-career, Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash recordings that focus on the artist's raw talent and interpretive skills – deserves a mention. While differences distinguish each selection in the six-album run – some skew gothic and quieter while, others, like American II: Unchained, opt for a livelier feel – all convey an intimacy of performance by presenting a close-up view of Cash's vocals, phrasing, and emotions. For American II: Unchained, Rubin pairs Cash with the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty's longtime backing band, to create a muscular and timeless set. In Cash's hands, a standard like "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" feels defiant, its gospel undertones opening the gates of heaven to even those with imperfections. Flaws, too, crop up on a reading of Petty's "Southern Accents," and a fresh take on the always rowdy, always acrimonious "Mean Eyed Cat" shows how life's small details can haunt us forever.

August 10, 2018

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