Various Artists 

Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop)

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded 10 songs about murderers and thieves, lawmen and con men, lovers and loners. Nebraska, full of moral ambiguity and emotional resonance, became the Springsteen album for people who didn't necessarily like Springsteen, and 18 years on, no artist has ever made anything quite like it.

Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is meant to present these songs to a new generation of listeners who may not have heard them the first time around. More than just creating a bridge to the original, however, Badlands comes damn close to actually besting it. Every singer on this album achieves grace. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders tackles "Nebraska," creating a powerful tension between the dryly chilling statements of the murdering narrator and her trademark emotion-laden vocals. When she sings, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world," Springsteen's portrayal of the banality of evil is stunning. Seconds later, Hank III's fiddle-driven version of "Atlantic City" roars in like a jump cut in a Scorsese movie. He absolutely nails the desperation in his narrator's worldview.

Los Lobos turn "Johnny 99" into a jumpin' Tex-Mex-influenced rocker; Dar Williams wrings every complex nuance from "Highway Patrolman"; Ani DiFranco turns in a wrenching performance on "Used Cars"; Son Volt's Jay Farrar sings especially beautifully on "Open All Night."

The original album ended with "Reason to Believe," here sung with a sense of detachment from husband-and-wife team Michael Penn and Aimee Mann. But Springsteen recorded other songs at the original sessions, so Johnny Cash nails "I'm on Fire" and Raul Malo of the Mavericks sings a gut-wrenching "Downbound Train."

These songs have long been among the deepest in American music history, so it's no surprise that a new look at them should ring so true. More than that, Badlands is easily one of the most essential albums to appear in 2000.

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