Bob Dylan has been writing songs about mortality for decades, and on his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, death is rarely far from his thoughts, whether he’s mourning the murder of John F. Kennedy in “Murder Most Foul” or imagining his visit from the Grim Reaper in “Crossing the Rubicon.” “Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient,” Dylan, who turned 79 last month, recently told The New York Times. “Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death.”
Back in the 1950s and 1960s when rock ‘n’ roll was first getting its hooks into the culture, celebrated as a music for young people, it was probably hard to imagine that artists in their 70s and beyond would still be at it years down the line. (And, also, that there would be a receptive audience: After all, “Murder Most Foul” was Dylan’s first No. 1 hit. Clearly, the musings of a senior-citizen rocker can still strike a chord.) The Who’s anthem “My Generation,” where they sang about dying before they got old, may be 55 years old now, but plenty of elderly artists have spit in the eye of that sentiment, demonstrating that aging hasn’t kept them from continuing to make vital music.
In honor of Rough and Rowdy Ways, here are 11 must-own records by musicians who were at least 70 years old when their album was released. There’s plenty of talk about mortality, but also a lot of life and hard-earned wisdom — even a little sex.
American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
Artist: Johnny Cash
Starting with 1994’s American Recordings, Cash reinvented himself as the elder statesman of doom and reckoning, working with producer Rick Rubin to craft stripped-down albums full of songs laced with regret and bitter truth. Sometimes, that approach could sink into shtick, but this fourth installment in the series, released about nine months after he turned 70, features some of his most indelible covers.
American IV contains his stark version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and his lonely-honky-tonk take on Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” The Man in Black shows love to the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, Sting and the Eagles, but one of its highlight moments is the new song he wrote, the title track, which is about preparing to meet your maker. Staring death down, Cash sounds as vibrant as ever. (He left us the following year.)
Artist: Bob Dylan
Dylan has enjoyed an extended golden-years renaissance, starting with 1997’s Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, which was completed shortly before he faced a life-threatening illness. As a result, every album he’s made since has been embraced as a bulletin from the wise old mystic with mortality in his sights. Tempest was his last collection of all-new material before Rough and Rowdy Ways, and like all his 21st century work, it goes deep into the past, digging into jump blues, old-timey ballads and roadhouse rock.
The subject matter is similarly flecked with nostalgia: On “Roll On John,” he eulogizes his long-dead friend John Lennon, and then goes even further back for “Tempest,” a nearly 14-minute track that memorializes the Titanic’s sinking. As always, Dylan’s growly voice is one of the main attractions, though. He sounds like he’s subsisted on whiskey and tree bark out in the woods for decades, which probably explains why he’s so ornery on Tempest.
You Are Not Alone (2010)
Artist: Mavis Staples
First making her name as part of the Staple Singers before becoming a solo artist, this R&B singer has enjoyed a fruitful comeback over the last 15 years. The peak is You Are Not Alone, which was her first pairing with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who produced the record and also wrote a few songs, including the comforting title track. Blues and gospel often sound better coming from more weathered voices that can summon up extra layers of weariness and resolve, and that plays to Staples’ strength. When she sings about being on her way to Heaven — or laments the mistakes she’s made in love — you really feel it. Taking on Randy Newman’s “Losing You,” she invests its central point with poignancy and experience: “When you’re young / And there’s time / You forget the past / You don’t think that you will / But you do.”
The Tree of Forgiveness (2018)
Artist: John Prine
Age of Artist: 71
In the late 1990s, Prine was diagnosed with cancer, which he battled for the next two decades, dying in April this year at 73. That period coincided with a newfound public appreciation for one of America’s best singer-songwriters, and although he didn’t make many albums during that time, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness was a fitting finale. For the uninitiated, it’s full of the elemental melodies and folksy wisdom that were his strengths, and while his voice wasn’t as strong near the end of his life, that only adds to the fragility of these country-tinged songs. Plus, you have to love that he ended his last album with a song called “When I Get to Heaven,” in which he gets excited about the afterlife. Apparently, he’s going to jump back into show business and open up a nightclub. That’s the kind of Heaven any of us would be lucky to visit.
Things Have Changed (2018)
Artist: Bettye LaVette
Love Dylan’s songs but can’t stand his voice? (How dare you…) Well, try this excellent covers album by LaVette, who reinterprets his catalog, largely avoiding the hits for deep album cuts that speak to her. What were folk and rock arrangements now become jazz, blues and gospel: “What Was It You Wanted” is now a smoky nightclub number, while “Mama, You Been on My Mind” no longer feels like a lament for a woman who got away but, rather, a deceased mother. LaVette’s rich, melancholy voice is ideal for Dylan’s more somber material, but she also lends a little grownup sexiness that’s absent from the originals. Even if you dig the way Dylan sang these songs, Things Have Changed wonderfully reinvents their themes, making them feel new.
Van Lear Rose (2004)
Artist: Loretta Lynn
Just as Rubin helped reshape Cash’s sound, Jack White similarly offered to produce his hero Lynn’s comeback album, emphasizing a no-nonsense approach. (“I didn’t want to overthink it,” White later said. “I didn’t want to push it and try to perfect it. She sounds brilliant right off the bat. Her voice is gorgeous.”) Singing her own compositions, Lynn brings a gritty authenticity to these tales of drunken love and dead husbands. (Lynn’s spouse Oliver died in 1996 at the age of 69.) Van Lear Rose revitalized her career and introduced her brand of outlaw country to a new generation of rock fans. Even better, Lynn regained her confidence, stepping away from other people’s material to find her own creative voice. “This is the first time I wrote all the songs on a record,” she mentions in Van Lear Rose’s liner notes, “and I hope you like ’em.” We sure did.
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (1999)
Artist: Ibrahim Ferrer
The album and subsequent documentary Buena Vista Social Club shone a spotlight on a collection of accomplished Cuban musicians who were largely unknown outside of their home country. As a result, the individual performers happily benefited from this newfound wider platform — particularly Ibrahim Ferrer, whose solo album is a deeply enjoyable tour of Latin American musical styles. Ferrer (who died in 2005 at the age of 78) sings in Spanish, but you won’t need to understand the words to feel the romantic sweep of the music and his resonant voice. Presents is ideal background music for a road trip or picnic, but in case you’re worried the album might be a little placid, an uptempo number like “Qué Bueno Baila Usted” will get you up and dancing.
Stranger to Stranger (2016)
Artist: Paul Simon
Simon has a dim view of the world on his 13th solo record. In the opening track, a menacing werewolf is on the prowl, and on the next song, “Wristband,” a humorous anecdote about being locked out of your own gig becomes an unsettling metaphor for economic inequality. (The final verse kicks off with the line “The riots started slowly.”) For anyone who thinks of Simon as just the nice, nerdy composer of Boomer anthems, Stranger to Stranger speaks to the experimental flair he’s displayed across his career, playing with tricky rhythms, African grooves and eerie instrumentals. And while he’s always been an expert crafter of love songs, here they’re a little more hesitant, as if he’s not sure that wedded bliss can keep the werewolf from pounding down his door.
Sound Grammar (2006)
Artist: Ornette Coleman
This pioneering jazz artist, who died in 2015 at the age of 85, had a term for the music he made: sound grammar. (“It’s the scientific form of sound based upon the human emotion of expression,” Coleman once said. “That’s basically what it is and what it does.”) Sound Grammar is a live album recorded in Germany in the fall of 2005, when Coleman was 75, that didn’t hit stores until the following year. Featuring two bassists, Coleman’s band is tight and electric, guided by the leader’s sax, trumpet and violin. The mood segues from ecstatic to urgent to wistful, but unsurprisingly, what’s most prominent is the music’s unbridled expression of emotion, as the songs’ improvisational flair thrillingly allows a group of locked-in players to navigate wherever they please. Sound Grammar isn’t currently on Spotify, but you can find its individual tracks on YouTube. Get it while you can.
You Want It Darker (2016)
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Since 2001’s superb Ten New Songs, released about a month after 9/11, the venerable singer-songwriter fashioned his deep voice so that it was either endlessly reassuring or the sound of imminent doom. Cohen’s final album before his death, You Want It Darker, came out a few weeks before the 2016 election, and a lot of us used it to help cope with the painful months and years to come. (Cohen died November 7th, the day before Trump’s victory, but the news wasn’t made public until three days later.) The album is highlighted by its funereal title track, which sets the ghostly mood for the next eight songs. “You want it darker / We kill the flame,” he croons with that eternal cool of his. Since Cohen’s passing, that song (and this album) only feels more like a transmission from a man about to leave this mortal coil behind.
Last Man Standing (2018)
Artist: Willie Nelson
“I don’t want to be the last man standing / Or, wait a minute, maybe I do.” That’s how Nelson opened this 2018 record, which came out just a few days before his 85th birthday. The title track is deceptively jaunty as this country icon misses his deceased famous friends and vows to enjoy the time he has left. Where other artists his age slow down, Nelson has continued to tour and record. (Remarkably, he’s released more than 20 albums this century.) Last Man Standing features songs that he co-wrote with youngster Buddy Cannon (he turned 73 earlier this year), and it’s an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with Nelson’s late-period versatility. Jazzy numbers, country ballads and some light swing are all featured here, and each song is highlighted by his warm, welcoming voice. Plus, he’s full of good humor and helpful advice. As he reminds us whippersnappers at one point: “Bad breath is better than no breath at all.”