He's been a cocky rocker (often referring to himself as "little bastard"), a deft interpreter of the roots music of bygone days, and a spokesman for the workingman. But no matter what guise he dons, it's always clear that John Mellencamp is the closest thing his generation has produced to an archetypal American songwriter. This career-spanning collection offers nearly 40 snapshots of Mellencamp in action, from early hits like "I Need a Lover" and "Jack and Diane" -- quintessential midwestern romances infused with a potent dose of the region's deeply ingrained grit -- to more pointed early-'80s favorites such as "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Small Town." Although Mellencamp became less of a chart-topping fixture in the '90s, he didn't lose a whit of his artistic potency, as evidenced by the steely "When Jesus Left Birmingham" (culled from 1993's Human Wheels
) and his duet with Meshell Ndegeocello
on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night." Mellencamp doesn't waste the opportunity to debut fresh material on Words and Music
. In fact, the pair of new songs -- both collaborations with Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds
-- might well be Mellencamp's best in ages, particularly "Walk Tall," a poignant-yet-pugnacious plea for tolerance that benefits from the soulful sheen added by Edmonds. Even a quarter century into his career, John Mellencamp is still unquestionably the Hoosier Daddy.