Stripped-down classics from some of music's biggest names
Turning down the volume can sometimes make an artist rise up the charts.
This week is the 20th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s classic, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
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Almost entirely acoustic and largely without the E Street Band, the song — released Nov. 21, 1995 — takes it’s name from a character in the John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” one of his few acoustic albums, was released 20 years ago this week.
The album, The Boss’ first acoustic record since 1982’s “Nebraska,” went platinum and won a Grammy in 1997 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Many other artists throughout music history have had success either making an acoustic record or producing an album that features largely minimalistic music. Here are just a few:
Led Zeppelin, “Led Zeppelin III” (1970)
Following the smash success of “Led Zeppelin II” — which sold 12 million albums in America alone — the English giants made a record that went in a much quieter direction.
Though it features one of their most famous songs ever (“Immigrant Song), “Zeppelin III” includes a lot of acoustic material, as well as one of the band’s only songs to feature strings (“Friends”) as well as the almost rockabilly “Celebration Day.”
The album sold about half of what “II” sold in the States.
Foo Fighters, “In Your Honor” (2005)
Following the Zeppelin model of half-electric, half-acoustic, the Foos released a double album built on this premise with 2005’s “In Your Honor.”
Experimenting with acoustic music led the band to do an entirely stripped down, unplugged tour, which led to the live record “Skin and Bones.”
Kanye West, “808s and Heartbreak” (2008)
Not an acoustic album, but a drastic, minimalistic change in direction from one of hip-hop’s most outsized performers.
Following the death of his mother and a bad breakup, West put out “808s” in 2008. It was noted for uses of auto-tune and was largely built on beats from the titular 808 drum machine.
The record didn’t sell as much as the previous year’s “Graduation,” but it still went platinum, featured multiple hit singles and showed listeners Kanye wasn’t all bluster.
Nirvana, “MTV Unplugged in New York” (1994)
To include an actual “Unplugged” record on this list, it has to be special.
Released seven months after singer Kurt Cobain’s death, “Unplugged” features the band playing a set for MTV that included stark, acoustic arrangements of some of their lesser known hits along with covers, as well as a collaboration with the Meat Puppets.
The record won a Grammy and sold over five million copies in the United States.
Beck, “Sea Change” (2002)
Similar to Kanye (who’d have thought they’d have so much in common after last year’s Grammys), Beck was largely known as a somewhat goofy, alternative artist who experimented with hip hop and rock.
Similarly, after a bad breakup, Beck put out his darkest record with 2002’s “Sea Change.” It featured an almost uniformly depressing tone and was essentially a folk record.
The album sold over one million copies and changed Beck from novelty act to serious singer/songwriter.
Johnny Cash, “American IV: The Man Comes Around” (2002)
Late in his career, the man in black worked with super-producer Rick Rubin on dark, solo recordings of some of the greatest American songs.
Released under the “American” series banner, the fourth is the most famous release, featuring the heartbreaking cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
The album went platinum and, along with the film “Walk the Line,” reintroduced Cash to a new generation of listeners.
Jay Z, “Unplugged” (2001)
LL Cool J had been the only previous rap artist to perform on “Unplugged,” but Jay Z is known for trying to break barriers in hip hop.
Performed with The Roots as his backing bad, ages before their “Tonight Show” era, Jay performs longer, drawn out, experimental versions of his hits, and collaborates with Mary J. Blige and Pharrell.
Madonna, “American Life” (2003)
When it was released, it was touted (or doubted) as “the record where Madonna raps.”
However, “American Life,” similar to “808s and Heartbreaks,” features minimalistic electronica sounds, and actually goes further, delving into folk music.
It still sold $ 5 million worldwide and produced a tour that was the largest selling of 2004.
Alice in Chains, “Unplugged”
The seminal 90s grunge hitmakers hadn’t performed a concert in three years when they took the stage for MTV.
While they played one new song, it’s an epic, stripped down rendition of their hits, which transition very well to acoustics.
The group would only play four more shows with original frontman Layne Stayley before he passed away from excessive drug use.