Memphis. Nashville. New York. Chicago. Los Angeles. Austin. New Orleans. Detroit. America is blessed with fabled rock n' roll cities – each home to multiple artists who epitomize their sound and soul. Elvis and Memphis, the Beach Boys and Los Angeles, Johnny Cash and Nashville. While not all of the aforementioned icons were born in the city they called home, they helped put these creative capitals on the musical map. But pop music is an idea – and one not tethered to any particular locale. Whether it's Tom Petty springing from Gainesville, Florida, or Woody Guthrie rising from Okemah, Oklahoma, music is bigger than any one creative hub. This week, as we welcome a new album from one of Indiana's most famous rock n' roll sons, John Mellencamp, we turn out attention to the Hoosier State. Indiana may not have Chicago's blues or Detroit's Motown to draw the tourists and academics, but the state's musical prowess shouldn't be overlooked.
"Ain't that America." So sang John Mellencamp on his 1983 smash "Pink Houses," a rousing, handclap-laden rocker with gospel undertones and vivid images of America's heartland. Big-city life is alluded to, but it's not the focus. Though Mellencamp's sound has softened – he releases the folksy, rootsy Sad Clowns & Hillbillies this week – the vocalist hasn't strayed from his main mission. Mellencamp continues to concentrate on the emotions of America's working class, writing songs that possess a political edge without being polemic. While plenty of recognizable hits dot his oeuvre, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies shows off his more poetic, biting side and presents Mellencamp as someone who hasn't stopped challenging himself. Start by checking out the somber "Easy Target," which references the Black Lives Matter movement and questions our country's relationship with firearms.
Only one state can claim to be the birthplace of the King of the Pop. But long before Michael Jackson scored global superstardom, the Gary-bred Jackson 5 became one of the Motown label's best-selling groups, and did so by merging the upbeat pep of bubblegum pop with the grooves of soul. That blend, typified by such standards as "ABC," a song that launches with a cheerily bright take on funk, as well as "I'll Be There," a charmingly graceful ballad, helped make the Jackson 5 breakout R&B stars. It also set the stage for generations of genre-bending pop (see, for instance, what Michael did later in giving R&B a bit of a rock edge in songs such as "Beat It"). Today, tabloid stories may overshadow the Jackson 5's pioneering work, but give a tune like "Blame it on the Boogie" a spin (from 1978's Destiny) and fall under the spell of the group's infectious, goofily groovy good times.
The history of American punk too often centers on New York and Los Angeles. But somewhere in the middle, and blessedly in between the extremes of pop and hardcore, lies what happened in the suburban centers of the Midwest. Indianapolis' Zero Boys don't have a deep catalog, but the band's Vicious Cycle, reissued by Indiana's indie powerhouse Secretly Canadian, comes with enough snarl to make up for it. Perhaps more importantly, it's loaded with melodies that foreshadow the snotty pop-punk of Screeching Weasel and Green Day. "Livin' in the ‘80s" bounces with a call-and-response stomp and puts a worldly view on teen angst. "Drug Free Youth" speeds along with all sorts of fancifully intense guitar work. A hidden gem, once thought lost to the zines of years gone by.
Fun fact: The producer extraordinaire, known best as a leading R&B architect of the 90s, when he worked with the likes of Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, and more, has a stretch of a highway named after him. In 1999, a 20-mile expanse of Interstate 65 near the artist's hometown of Indianapolis was rechristened Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds Highway. Alas, drivers can't tune into an all-Babyface local station to hear such tunes as Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You" or Eric Clapton's "Change the World." No matter. Babyface's work remains in heavy rotation. Whether it's the artist's own silky smooth ballads – or his pairings with everyone from Fall Out Boy to Madonna – Babyface remains an indelible pop force as his credit appears on more than three dozen Top 10 hits.
Axl Rose & David Lee Roth
We're slightly cheating here. While Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose and Van Halen's David Lee Roth count Indiana as birthplaces, neither singer's primary bands are heavily associated with the state. Both groups are more closely aligned with the L.A. area, and with it, Southern California's brassier and bolder takes on hard rock. Yet metal – or, American rock, for that matter – wouldn't be the same without them, so the two Indiana boys are combined here in one entry to note the Midwest state's singular presence on guitar-based music. And while Guns N' Roses' songs often took a darker turn than those of Van Halen, the two frontmen share another trait. They both convey a sense of danger with colorful exaggeration. And who better than an urban outsider to document the addictive-like appeal of inner-city depravity that is "Welcome to the Jungle"?