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Johnny Cash

American VI: Ain't No Grave

American Recordings

Buy if you like: Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan

American VI is the last album from Johnny Cash, recorded in the months preceding his death in 2003. Produced by Rick Rubin, who first teamed with Cash in 1994, its stripped-down sound centers around an acoustic guitar and an iconic deep baritone that's sometimes ragged, sometimes thin, sometimes rumbling. Brave, touching and, above all, honest, Cash delivers a meditation on life and impending death that's rarely been heard, especially from an artist of his stature. On the title cut, he transforms the uplifting gospel song into a more sobering affair. But ultimately, the album conveys a kind of optimistic uncertainty about the future and a contentedness with the past. It also serves as a reaffirmation of Cash's Christian faith and a revisiting of songs like "Cool Water." With grace and dignity, American VI is a rarity befitting its one-of-a-kind creator. John R. Cash couldn't have gone out in better fashion. — L. Kent Wolgamott


John Hiatt

The Open Road

New West

Buy if you like: Neil Young, Alejandro Escovedo

Buddy Miller may be Americana music's main squeeze, but John Hiatt should be its pope — or get a special lifetime brilliance award. This time out, instead of dealing with midlife crises or cataloging regrets, Hiatt's accepting his sins and looking to forgive himself. In "Go Down Swingin'," he confesses he's sometimes a scary predator, sometimes a timid field mouse — a perfect metaphor for life's emotional roller coaster. The bluesy "Like a Freight Train," with its stripped-down slide and gorgeously anguished-as-ever high notes, stings like a king bee. "My Baby" is raw and dirty, elemental and rockin', with wonderfully outrageous imagery that's undoubtedly at least half-true. But the real grabber is "Movin' On," whose relaxed twang belies its lyrical wallop. Hiatt manages such perfect marriages of phrasing and music, there's only one word for it: genius. — Lynne Margolis


Flogging Molly

Live at the Greek Theatre


Buy if you like: The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys

Flogging Molly has always been first and foremost a live band, easily capable of stirring up crowds into a frenzy with its rollicking Irish-infused, punk-rock anthems. So it's odd to think the group managed to put out six studio albums before delivering a proper live release. But this one's well worth the wait. The DVD and two CDs capture the rowdy, rocking side of the band, to be sure, but also include several of the strong ballads and mid-tempo tunes ("Punch Drunk Grinning Soul") that have graced recent studio albums. Frontman Dave King and his cohorts also deserve credit for recording only one show and eschewing the after-the-fact in-studio fixes that spoil (or in some cases salvage) plenty of live albums. Flogging Molly now rivals any other act fusing Celtic and rock influences, and this album set proves it. — Alan Sculley

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