In a career that now stretches five decades, John Mellencamp has been a man of many faces, many musical styles, and many names. Pick any two John Mellencamp songs of his at random, and it may be hard to believe they were made by the same guy. But there’s a deeply American spirit that holds his work together, from the raucous rock & roll of the early days to the lowdown folk and country of more recent years.
What follows is a set of 20 essential Mellencamp songs, from his debut as Johnny Cougar to Strictly a One-Eyed Jack in 2022. Our goal isn’t to include every hit (that would take 20 tracks and then some), but to have representative highlights from each of the man’s major phases. We’ll start at the beginning and go in chronological order.
“The American Dream” (from Chestnut Street Incident, 1976)
Then known as “Johnny Cougar,” John Mellencamp’s debut album is full of unlikely 60s cover songs and slick, glitter-styled production. At the time, he looked and sounded like he really loved Elvis Presley. The opening track is still a solid rocker, introducing the heartland storytelling that would later make his name. Even the chorus, “Ain’t that the American dream,” would later be adapted in a more famous tune of his.
“Ain’t Even Done With the Night” (from Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, 1981)
Donning the more serious “John Cougar” name, John Mellencamp set his sights on chart success: This tune was part of a string of singles (including “Hurt So Good” and the Pat Benatar-covered “I Need a Lover”) that established him as a radio presence. “Ain’t Even Done…” was the sweetest of the batch, a song that captures the feel of being young and sexed-up. The lyrics evince both insecurity (“Don’t even know if I’m doing this right”) and endless possibility. Sure, there’s a bit of Springsteen here, but the lead mandolin points at his future direction.
“Jack & Diane” (from American Fool, 1982)
An 80s anthem and a No. 1 hit, “Jack & Diane” puts some ambiguity in John Mellencamp’s storytelling: We don’t know where Jack and Diane will end up, this is just a snapshot that feels gritty and real. Sonically, it was state of the art, with that heavy acoustic guitar, the big chord crashes, and the rousing “Oh let it rock” chorus.
“Pink Houses” (from Uh-Huh, 1983)
Enter “John Cougar Mellencamp,” and the most emblematic song of his career (if not quite the biggest hit). The chorus of “ain’t that America” has been adopted by politicians on both sides of the spectrum, but like “Born in the USA,” this is an easy song to misinterpret. Mellencamp’s song is patriotic but not a flag-waver: It calls out inequality and lost dreams, and says that the peoples’ ability to roll with it is what makes this country great.
“Small Town” (from Scarecrow, 1985)
Another year, another anthem: When you hear the words “heartland rock,” “Small Town” is likely the first song that comes to mind. No double edge on this one, it’s a pure celebration of his roots, and the video includes some of the most rural scenes ever to appear on peak-era MTV.
“Rain On the Scarecrow” (from Scarecrow, 1985)
“Scarecrow” made a forceful case for the economically threatened American farmer. Anticipating Farm Aid and a few stacks of similarly-themed songs, this one went a long way toward putting the plight of farmers on the national radar.
“Paper in Fire,” (from The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987)
Now hitting the peak of his 80s fame, John Mellencamp was blending rock and roots into his own kind of American music. The pairing of accordion and fiddle with Kenny Aronoff’s power drumming made this an especially potent band. Though it still works as a fist-waver, “Paper in Fire” found him writing on a more metaphorical level about how the grandest dreams can turn to ashes.
“Shama Lama Ding Dong” (single, 1987)
For all the deep thoughts in his songs, John Mellencamp could do pure fun with the best. This rarity is a prime example: Originally played by Otis Day & the Knights in the movie Animal House, “Shama Lama Ding Dong” was a nod to the soulful sound of North Carolina beach music. It was a popular live tune in the Lonesome Jubilee era, and a studio version appeared on the B-side of the “Cherry Bomb” single. Still non-LP after all these years, so happy hunting.
“Big Daddy of Them All” (from Big Daddy, 1989)
Big Daddy was a surprise. It was a darker album that largely avoided the usual rockers and anthems and had more of a world-weary tone. The hit single “Pop Singer” is one of John Mellencamp’s crankiest. This sort-of title track opened the album and set its tone, telling of a character who gains power but loses his soul. The sound is likewise stripped-down, with an aggressive lead guitar that appears only in the middle and end.
“I Ain’t Never Satisfied” (from Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
Just when it seemed John Mellencamp had grown away from straight-ahead rock, he picked it back up with a vengeance on this oft-overlooked 1991 album – the first to be credited to “John Mellencamp.” He was confident enough to release half of its ten tracks as singles – but oddly, this standout track wasn’t one of those. With a killer guitar riff and clever lyrics (“I try anything once, but then I do it to death”), this is as stripped-down and punkish as Mellencamp gets. Cheers to the terrific guitarist David Grissom, pinched from Texas rocker Joe Ely’s band.
“Wild Night” (from Dance Naked, 1994)
Cover tunes are an enduring part of John Mellencamp’s catalogue, he even devoted a full compilation album to Other Peoples’ Stuff in 2018. “Wild Night” makes our list, partly because it was a big hit and because it gives one of Van Morrison’s most beloved tunes a run for its money. Mellencamp doesn’t change the feel of the song much, though he does replace Morrison’s horns with a wall of guitars. But the vocal tradeoffs with Me’Shell Ndegeocello are the real kicker.
“Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” (from Mr. Happy Go Lucky, 1996)
Mr. Happy Go Lucky is a fascinating one-off in John Mellencamp’s catalogue, a surreal circus of a disc partly inspired by his near-fatal heart attack two years earlier. Among its darker psychedelic tracks is this sunny, but still dreamlike story of an impulsive love affair. The can’t-miss chorus proved his hitmaking instincts were still intact – though this was one of his last songs in this vein, and his final trip to the singles Top 20.
“Miss Missy” (from John Mellencamp, 1998)
Meant to be a fresh start, the self-titled 1998 album is one of his overlooked gems. Much of it nods toward Dylan and Donovan with its acoustic flavor and extensive use of Indian instruments, but there are also old-school rockers like “Miss Missy.” A romantic tune with an infectious hook, it features a one-time supergroup with the Heartbreakers’ Stan Lynch, Guns N’ Roses’ Izzy Stradlin, and Lisa Germano on harmonica.
“Cuttin’ Heads” (from Cuttin’ Heads, 2001)
Musically this is one of John Mellencamp’s more audacious tracks, blending Delta blues with hip-hop, and including a guest rap by Chuck D of Public Enemy. Lyrically it’s even more so, with Mellencamp’s verse about the legacy of racism giving way to Chuck’s rap against any use of the n-word (the word is actually in the song, in a “don’t call me…” chant that references a vintage Sly Stone track). It’s a trenchant commentary that only needed one false move to topple it.
“Down in the Bottom” (from Trouble No More, 2003)
Trouble No More proved to be a transitional album – John Mellencamp’s first devoted to folk and blues material, but he still rocked it pretty hard. Originally cut by Howlin’ Wolf, “Down in the Bottom” is a hellbent blues about a man who’s been cheating and now has the lady’s husband on his trail. It’s one of the best versions of this oft-covered song, which also happens to be a Rolling Stones favorite.
“Our Country” (from Freedom’s Road, 2007)
For anyone who longed for a return to the Scarecrow era, the overlooked Freedom’s Road was just the ticket. For the first (and last) time in a long while, John Mellencamp embraced the heartland rock sound of old, with “Our Country” in particular coming across like a modern “Pink Houses.” But this time the message is even more straightforward, saying America’s got room for everyone. Best known as a truck commercial, it also squeaked into the country Top 40.
“Don’t Need This Body” (from Life, Death, Love & Freedom, 2008)
“This gettin’ older – well, it ain’t for cowards.” A quotable line if there ever was one, and one that wraps up John Mellencamp’s perspective in this new, rural-blues stage of his work. Like many of his latter-day songs, “Don’t Need This Body” is steeped in hard-won thoughts about age and mortality – but it also sounds grizzled and defiant. New collaborator T-Bone Burnett provides a haunting, out-of-time production.
“No Better Than This” (from No Better Than This, 2010)
John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett went high-concept on their second collaboration, recording at Georgia’s First African Baptist Church and at Sun Studio, both in mono with plenty of room echo and slapback bass. It comes out as a scruffy folk/rock album with a bit of humor between the lines – especially on the title track, where the singer wishes to relive his youth but says he’d settle for a good party and a full night’s sleep.
“My Soul’s Got Wings” (from Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, 2017)
Call this one a double collaboration, with its vocal tradeoffs between John Mellencamp and Carlene Carter – the daughter of June Carter and former wife/muse of Nick Lowe – who sound positively made for each other. It also allowed Mellencamp to write with his songwriting hero Woody Guthrie, whose family brought him some poems that hadn’t been set to music. He goes for an uplifting, country/gospel feel; the surprise is how young and feisty Mellencamp can still sound after all those mortality songs.
“Wasted Days” (from Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, 2022)
Longtime friends John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen finally got around to cutting a few duets for this 2022 album, which again finds the passage of time on their minds: “Wasted Days” is a somber tune that asks a lot of the tough questions (“How many summers still remain, how many days are lost in vain?”) The reassurance comes from their vocal blend, with Springsteen providing the high-lonesome harmony to Mellencamp’s lowdown lead.
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