This is the second in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009. The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members. Look for new posts coming soon!
By Chris Moore:
For an artist whose entire recorded career is contained within this one decade, Jack Johnson has compiled an expansive and impressive catalog. He has matured quickly, enough to form his own record label and to gain the respect of some of the biggest names in rock music.
As I type this, I’m listening to the live En Concert version of “Constellations,” a duet with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, performed as comfortably as if they were buddies jamming in their parents’ basement.
Most notable of all is the manner in which Jack Johnson has achieved success — namely, by recording chart-topping albums in an age when singles are all the rage and illegal downloading has cut many artists’ sales. In a mere nine years, Johnson’s repertoire extends across four studio albums, a soundtrack, three concert DVDs, and a live CD.
Without a doubt, Jack Johnson is one of the top rock artists of the decade.
AN ALBUM GUY, AN ACOUSTIC GUY…
Just to recap: singles ruling the music kingdom, illegal downloading killing sales, music stores closing their doors.
Well, you wouldn’t know it by the way Jack Johnson has built his career. Thus far, it’s gone down something like this…
2001: Brushfire Fairytales, a mix between conventional (read: acoustic) and catchy/quirky, a debut album that manages to crack the top forty in the U.S., rising all the way to number 34 despite the fact that the only single released faltered on the fall line, forty slots lower. Songs like “Inaudible Melodies,” “Flake,” and “Losing Hope” were already outstanding, while others shared the promise of thematic (“The News”) and lyrical (“Posters” – “Here comes another one, just like the other one”) material to come.
2003: On and On, a darker, more lyrically interesting album, a follow-up that skyrockets to number three in the U.S. and manages multi-platinum sales globally. You wouldn’t know it from the U.S. singles charts, but there are some tremendous songs here — “Taylor,” “The Horizon Has Been Defeated,” “Gone,” “Holes to Heaven” — the list goes on…
2005: In Between Dreams, a veritable “best of” collection, an instantly classic album with a crystal clear sound and a beautiful sense of atmosphere, a true masterpiece. It hit number two in America, and in a rare case of the UK being behind, they finally caught wind of Johnson as he topped the charts there. It’s all here — the carefree, relaxing (“Banana Pancakes,” “Better Together”), the serious, politically-charged (“Crying Shame,” “Good People”), the good love songs (“Do You Remember?) and the jilted love songs (“Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”).
2008: Sleep Through the Static, billed as “Jack Johnson gone electric,” an even calmer, lower-key record than he had ever produced before, one that takes some time to grow into. This is a case of each individual song being great — played in order, the “chill” factor is too much at times. Not the strongest note to end the decade on, but it leaves us with some wonderful tracks like “All At Once,” “If I Had Eyes,” “Go On,” and “They Do, They Don’t.”
JAPAN, THE GREEK, AND EN CONCERT
His career as a professional athlete — surfer — may have been brief, but Johnson hasn’t stopped moving in this career, either.
And there are the films to prove it.
Live in Japan is more than just a concert DVD; it is a documentary of the On and On tour. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, comes A Weekend at the Greek, an even more interesting, visually stimulating documentary of two concert dates on the In Between Dreams tour. I’ve seen a good number of rock documentaries and live DVDs over the years, and believe me when I say that the latter (The Greek) is perhaps the best I’ve seen.
En Concert, released last year, was the final Jack Johnson release of the decade, and his first CD/DVD combo. Excellent, colorful booklet? Check. Great setlist? Double check. Some great guest duets? Triple check (J Radio, Paula Fuga, and Vedder).
In any rock artist’s career, the ratio between studio albums and live albums must be carefully balanced. From the outside, three live CDs and/or DVDs may seem excessive when held up against four studio recordings, but Jack Johnson somehow managed it. He was smart to release Japan as a bonus disc with The Greek, and he held off on a companion CD until En Concert. This was a rare circumstance of the overlap between smart marketing and an affordable, fan-friendly strategy.
WITH MY OWN TWO HANDS — COLLABORATIONS AND OTHER VENTURES
If this was all Johnson produced this decade, it would be more than enough. However, he wasn’t content to stick to these traditional products alone. He took on the task of recording the Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the film Curious George soundtrack, involving others like G. Love, Matt Costa, and Ben Harper. This was not only a strong release, but also featured some of the strongest tracks of his career — “Upside Down” (his highest charting single at #38), “Broken,” “Wrong Turn” — as well as some of the silliest, albeit catchiest — “The Sharing Song” and “People Watching.”
Meanwhile, he continued his interest and involvement in independent films (he did graduate as a film major, after all!), contributed to numerous high profile tribute releases (“Mama, You Been on My Mind” for I’m Not There, “Imagine” for Instant Karma, “Someday at Christmas” for This Warm December), and nurtured the careers of the several artists on his Brushfire Records label.
My respect for Jack Johnson is multiplied when I consider how he accomplished all these things on his own in less than ten years. He is a unique voice and sound in modern rock music, as well as a prolific artist, and as such, I was not surprised to hear that, a mere month into the new decade, he has already returned to the studio to work on his fifth album, due out in June 2010.
Even with my disappointment after Sleep Through the Static, I can already feel my anticipation building!