American (2014, Reissue)
This is the album that turned me into a Johnny Cash fan. Prior to hearing it, I don't know that I had ever given much thought to him at all. In my mind he was probably just some old country singer, but after hearing Unchained my opinion was forever changed. In 1996 I was writing at my college newspaper, mostly doing album reviews but also a handful of interviews when a band came to town. When I opened up the mail one day I saw that I had been sent the new Johnny Cash record by the label. I'm not sure that even then I would have really paid that much attention, but there was one thing that made me immediately put the CD into the player.
The first track of Unchained is a cover of "Rowboat" by Beck. It's one of my favorite Beck songs and in 1996, I was a pretty gigantic Beck fan (I still am, but the pre-Odelay stuff has always been my favorite). Cash's take on Rowboat is a baritone filled somber affair. I won't say that his voice elevates the song, but it changes it and gives it a different meaning to me. I'm not going to be the first person to say that Johnny Cash has a unique ability to make a song his own, but I will reinforce it.
The rest of the record is equally great. The Soundgarden cover "Rusty Cage" is probably one of his more famous covers and deserves all of the accolades heaped on it. "Sea Of Heartbreak," "I Never Picked Cotton," "Solitary Man" and "I've Been Everywhere" are all stone cold classics. I love every one of the Johnny Cash American albums, but Unchained was my first and will probably always be my favorite. Having this record on vinyl and the vinyl sounding so ridiculously good makes my record collection feel just a bit more complete.
Johnny Cash - "Rowboat":
Johnny Cash - "I've Been Everywhere":