Ageing gracefully: Essential albums by senior rockers

Jamie Atkins 2 August 2022

Creativity doesn't just wither with age, as shown by some of the world's most celebrated musicians who are releasing prized works in their autumn of life

When The Who snarled, “I hope I die before I get on old” on their 1965 hit “My Generation”, few would have expected them to still be performing long after they were eligible for their bus passes.

But, as Paul McCartney has proved with a triumphant Glastonbury headline set at the age of 80, rock’n’roll is no longer the reserve of hip young gunslingers.

For many musicians, retirement is not an option and their advancing years have given us a new kind of rock’n’roll—one informed by wisdom and maturity. Here we look at some of the best albums made by musicians of an advanced age.

Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (2000)

The late Seventies and Eighties were a struggle for country great Johnny Cash. His solo albums struggled for attention as he attempted to negotiate changes in musical fashions.

Still, that unmistakeable voice remained and come the Nineties he recorded a series of stripped-back albums with Rick Rubin that saw Cash win over a new generation of fans.

"Rick Rubin recognised the power of Cash’s weathered vocals and placed them front and centre"

American III was released when Cash was 68 and in deteriorating health—he’d been hospitalised with pneumonia prior to recording sessions.

Rubin recognised the power of Cash’s weathered vocals and placed them front and centre on well-chosen songs from modern artists (Will Oldham’s “I Can See A Darkness”, U2’s “One”, Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”) and new takes on Cash originals (“Before My Time”, “Country Trash”) with emotionally draining results.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (2004)

Another country star who enjoyed a late-period renaissance, Loretta Lynn was 72 when her 42nd studio album, Van Lear Rose, was released.

Lynn wasn’t just one of the most successful country artists of all time—her straight-talking, gritty songs reflected the issues facing women back in the late Sixties and Seventies, a time when women’s voices were even more marginalised than today.

Songs like “The Pill”, “Fist City” and “Rated X” made her a true pioneer.

The White Stripes’ Jack White was a longtime fan, dedicating the band’s breakthrough 2001 album, White Blood Cells to Lynn.

That led to White producing Van Lear Rose, a sassy, poignant and unflinchingly honest collection of songs that capture the essence of Lynn’s classic recordings while benefitting from White’s no-frills recording methods.

David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)

While David Bowie had already spent his early career confounding expectations, the biggest shock came at the end.

Bowie’s 26th studio album, Blackstar, was released on January 8, 2016, his 69th birthday and just two days before he died.

Bowie recorded Blackstar during top-secret sessions in New York City—he was suffering from liver cancer and knew that he was making his final artistic statement.

"Bowie was suffering from liver cancer and knew that he was making his final artistic statement"

He enlisted a crack band featuring the city’s most respected jazz players and made some of the most adventurous music of his career.

In the wake of his death, Blackstar topped charts worldwide, even becoming Bowie’s first No 1 album in the United States.

He’d said goodbye to the world on his own terms, with an album every bit as daring, uncompromising and moving as his best work.

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (2016)

Poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was another artist who said farewell with his work. You Want It Darker was his 14th studio album and was released on October 21, 2016, 17 days before his death at 82.

Cohen had written about mortality for much of his career, but here he tackled it head-on, pouring a lifetime’s worth of wit and wisdom into You Want It Darker’s meticulously crafted lyrics.

While Cohen was increasingly frail during recording (he told The New Yorker that he was “ready to die”), his voice was more resonant and authoritative than ever, bringing out fathomless depths in his lyrics.

His son, Adam Cohen, handled the production and favoured a spare and subtle sound, which complemented that voice perfectly.

Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black (2017)

The owner of one of the great voices in American music, Mavis Staples came to prominence singing with her family group, The Staple Singers.

They originally sang spiritual gospel but would later embrace soul and R&B, becoming a pivotal voice in the Civil Rights movement.

Mavis’ 2017 album, If All I Was Was Black—released when she was 78 years old—showed that her fire burned as strong as ever with 11 songs that tackled racism and injustice in Trump’s America.

Throughout her career, Staples’ abiding message has been one of hope and understanding. Here, she added righteous anger, making for a vital listen.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2000)

New Bob Dylan material is always going to be big news. But when the songwriting great released “Murder Most Foul” to a world coming to terms with a global pandemic, his fans were staggered.

Here was a stunning near-17-minute song poem in which Dylan uses the assassination of John F Kennedy as a jumping-off point for a meditation on the power of art at a time of collective trauma.

"Dylan uses the assassination of John F Kennedy as a jumping-off point for a meditation on the power of art at a time of collective trauma"

It was Dylan’s first original material for eight years and was swiftly followed by Rough And Rowdy Ways, the then-79-year-old’s 39th studio album.

His muse was as strong as ever on a collection that dealt with the big issues—love, death, religion, the afterlife, the purpose of art.

It was a critical and commercial hit, voted among the albums of the year by most publications and giving Dylan a worldwide No 1.

Paul McCartney, McCartney III (2000)

The worldwide pandemic also inspired Paul McCartney to record an entry in his series of self-titled, mostly solo albums.

It had been 40 years since the synth-heavy art pop of McCartney II, but McCartney III was emphatic proof that the former Beatle’s sense of musical curiosity remains undimmed.

Over the course of the album, McCartney serves up melodically dextrous, bouncy power-pop (“Find My Way”, “Seize The Day”), round-the-campfire acoustic gems (“Pretty Boys”, The Kiss Of Venus”, “When Winter Comes”), lascivious rockers (“Slidin’”, “Deep Down”), and even a future R&B epic (“Deep Deep Feeling”).

McCartney was 78 on its December 18, 2020 release and, following that Glastonbury performance, shows no sign of stopping.

Banner photo credit: Ralph_PH via Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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