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.